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ARTIS LANE

The breakthrough came in the form of a crack. The shell holding Artis Lane’s female head intact during the foundry process was split down the middle. Coiled wire and chalky casing stuck to the pristine bronze figure underneath. Normally that’s all chipped away and the piece is polished before anyone can see it. But through that hole, Lane saw Truth. Her metaphysical and artistic worlds collided in an extraordinary epiphany. The bust covered in “birthing material” represented humanity’s imperfections. Yet through life’s challenges, Lane saw a shining soul yearning for a higher understanding – artistic proof that beauty is not physical or material, it is spiritual.

Lane chose figurative art because she sees the medium of bronze as a vehicle for a metaphysical journey. “The idea of leaving part of the shell on symbolizes man breaking out of matter into Spirit,” she says. This concept of emergence has been her focus for decades and culminated in an installation called Emerging Into Spirit. It consisted of the same six male figures suspended vertically in a hierarchy from dark to light. The phases signified an evolution from physical to moral into spiritual and finally the divine. The last figure disappearing into the light – the Christ consciousness translucent, made from a crystal-like polymer. The apparent lack of matter was more than a suggestion about the essence of life. “Spirit is invisible. Faith is the substance of the things unseen,” Lane explains.

Artis began manifesting a “generic man” and “generic woman” through her studies of Christian Science. Her challenge was to create art that inspired others to think higher than our material world. Lane believes that “God’s spiritual idea is the real definition of man.” Showcasing art metaphysically, or above the bodily, is not an easy task. To do this, Lane set out to eliminate race, religion, cultural differences and elements of time from her work. Her pieces are hairless, sinuous and nude, crafted in a unique amorphous style.

Artis concerned herself with story as well as shape in developing a universal woman. She wanted her to represent man’s inhumanity to man and serve as an incredible example of overcoming adversity. In New Woman, for example, Lane sculpted a figure with extended arms and legs in the Vitruvian Man formation set on the female symbol. The cross represents suffering; the circle stands for God. “I was looking for a symbol for a woman of all races with a consciousness of the reality of her being. It wasn’t a pin-up girl, it was a woman who’d been through a lot and had forgiven,” Lane says. Since Leonardo da Vinci made that famous drawing, 460 other major artists have created works in that similar vein. Artis Lane is the only female on that list and the only one to put a woman inside the circle.

The birth of her male figure was a complete act of fate. “God knows your deepest desires before you ask,” Lane explains. “I wanted ‘generic man’ and there he was. Everything comes complete for those who stay on their path. It’s there before you ask.” Sidney and Joanna Poitier invited Artis to Thanksgiving dinner. The other guest that night was Djimon Hounsou made famous by a 1989 Herb Ritts photograph featuring him with an octopus on his head. Honsou had also just finished the black and white Janet Jackson video “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” That night he walked into the room and shook hands with Sidney right above Artis’ head. When she looked up at his face, she knew he was the one. Artis and her husband, Vince, became his surrogate parents. He stayed in their home for awhile and they developed an extremely tight bond. “I found that he was so spiritual within,” Artis says. “He understood what I studied. He had a grasp of metaphysics. So much of his deep feel without words was transmitted. To add to the so-called coincidence of it all, Djimon came from the Republic of Benin where the earliest bronzes were uncovered.” Through Lane’s art, Hounsou’s likeness has become the spirit of all mankind. His career has exploded, too. He went on to do “Amistad,” “Gladiator” and “Blood Diamond” and became the first black African to be nominated for an Oscar for “In America.”

Plato once said, “Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself.” Using that concept, Lane created her Dialogue Series. They are identical pieces shown together, one with bits of the casting material and the other a traditional bronze. The former is mortal, the later is spiritual awareness. The pieces face each other as if they’re locked in a conversation about moralistic versus materialistic values. Lane believes it is this quest for spiritual awareness that connects humans with a universal force.

In addition to her conceptual bronzes, Lane has done monumental work regarding social issues. “Artists have to pour out their soul into an expression of the injustice of humanity,” Lane says. Her painting of orphans behind a barbed wire fence in the early 1960’s spoke volumes about the lasting effects war has on civilizations. The kids were birthed by Korean mothers who were deserted by American G.I.’s. Many of those children were left to fend for themselves. Lane worked to bring awareness to the problem and helped raise money to get those children adopted in the U.S. Artis has spent several decades calling attention to the devastation of famine. One of her sculptures on the subject features a skeletal, starved mother holding her son in an empty feeding trough. But as a symbol of hope, the child’s arms are outstretched to look like a cross. In a painting called Tear, a black boy looks up at the Statue of Liberty. A faint tear is visible in his eye suggesting innocence and denied opportunity. In 2009, Lane’s bronze bust of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth became the first sculpture to honor an African American woman in the United States Capitol. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the unveiling ceremony at Emancipation Hall in the Capitol’s Visitor’s Center where the sculpture will remain on permanent public display.

Lane is often recognized for her work with Rosa Parks. In a painting called The Beginning, Lane shows Parks as she must have been that day in 1955, dignified, defiant and just plain tired. Out the window of the bus is a church, a school and an American flag – all important symbols of what her courage embodied. Parks was so moved by the painting that she later posed for Artis for a beautiful bronze bust. The two became fast friends. Parks spent the winters in Los Angeles, where Lane’s husband would drive her around in a black Volkswagen van – they called it her limo. “She stepped out of it with all the grace of a queen,” Lane says. “Whenever you traveled with Mrs. Parks everything went well, the weather would clear up and she always carried herself with such grace. Lane became the only artist outside the U.S. Mint to design a Congressional Medal of Honor, which was awarded to Parks during the Clinton administration. She also created a permanent installation at the official Rosa Parks Memorial Library and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which includes a life-size bronze in the entrance. During its unveiling in 2000, Parks cried and said, “I wish my mother was here.”

Lane’s earliest success came in the field of portraiture where her objective was to capture someone’s soul, not just paint their face. “Some of the best known paintings are portraits from Rembrandt on up to Andy Warhol,” Lane says. “There are different approaches to portraiture and when you fight to see their Spirit, it’s totally different than flattering them to make money.” After college, Lane lived in Detroit where her clients included the Ford and Chrysler families. In 1955, she went to see Diahann Carroll in a play called “No Strings.” The two had an instant connection and Carroll convinced Artis to move in with her in New York. Carroll brought Lane all kinds of clients, and she quickly became accepted by the social elite who made her feel at home.

Artis was in her early thirties when she moved to Los Angeles where she was commissioned by Universal Studios. While in Los Angeles, Cary Grant purchased a portrait Artis had done of him. The actor and artist became very close. “It was just about dinner time and I went over to meet him with the portrait,” Lane says. “I put it down on the floor beside me. He was standing in the doorway and he looked at it. I didn’t know he had a background as an acrobat. But he gracefully slid in on the floor to look at it. He looked at the portrait, turned it upside down and said, ‘What technique is this?’ He was so curious about the technique and was a collector of art.”

Lane’s style is certainly in the vein of less is more. “Portraiture is like poetry – looking for those succinct statements that will say everything in just a few words. I start like architects would with the structure of a home… bone and cheek bone,” Lane explains. She uses oil, oil wash and a secret ingredient on pastel paper because of its plasticity. “The paper acts as a ground so that the less you do to it, the more brilliant the construction.” After the structure of the piece is complete, Lane hits the paper with pastels. Waving her brush like Matisse, each stroke has purpose and perfect placement. The series of strokes creates dimension, but much of the paper is never touched – her way of keeping the soul uncovered.

Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx commissioned Lane to paint his friend, Oprah Winfrey. The elegant piece shows her bold, insightful side while hinting at some of the private pain she’s endured. The portrait was unveiled live on her television show in 2006. Over the years, Lane has also been commissioned to paint portraits of President John F. Kennedy, Armand Hammer, Jerry Bush, Gordon and Ann Getty, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordan, Aretha Franklin and so many more. Stevie Wonder posed for a life-sized bronze at Lane’s house. A smaller sculpture was given to him by “Soul Train” in 2006 as part of a special lifetime achievement award. She’s collected by Bill Cosby, former President George Bush, Magic Johnson, Quincy Jones and numerous business heavyweights from around the world. Lane’s portrait journey has been a globetrotting love affair with culture and diversity that has added so much to her art and understanding of metaphysics. She’s connected with so many of her collectors on the same intimate and spiritual level. It is something that gives her great pride.

Lane’s artistic journey has bypassed racial prejudice and gender discrimination. She was making statements about culture long before the social movements of the 1960’s. She studied life drawing, painting and sculpture at Ontario College of Art, Cranbrook Art Academy and UCLA. Lane excelled in those arenas where women and blacks were seldom allowed. Before any bra was burned, Lane had been elevating womanhood by empowering them in her work. She put a black patina on Eurocentric-style busts and gave them titles like Adam. Of course it stands for racial equality, but as importantly, dignity for all races.

Lane is a beautiful mix of African and German and a direct descendent of renowned abolitionist, educator and publisher Mary Ann Shadd. Born and raised in an all black village in Buxton, Canada, the family moved to Chatham where she attended predominately white schools. She was as pretty as the white girls, but generally the boys looked away. The one thing people did turn to her for was guidance. “I was an old soul, never a teenager. I was giving advice having had no experience… my favorite expression when I was a child was, ‘Rise above it’ – like you’re looking down on your life and then you can be objective about it and know how to guide it. You’re one with your wisdom whose source is God.” Adversity was something she lived with; art is what she lived for.

“I was predestined to become an artist,” she says. “My mother named me Artis for a reason, you see.” When she was five years old, she was outdoors watching bumblebees pollinate a field of wildflowers. She says through observing nature that day her path to becoming an artist became 100% clear. She ran home to tell her mother about the experience, but at that age didn’t have the words to describe it. The following year, Artis began fashioning clay figurines from the mud in the stream on her grandparent’s farm. As she got older, she did illustrations in the Sunday school paper about injustice and did portraits of her classmates in junior high. “I never intended to marry,” Lane says. “I was always married to art. My mother was supportive but said, ‘You are either going to have to take commercial art or be a teacher.’ But I don’t draw cars, so I chose to study fine art and fought for it and the issues that an artist is here to deal with such as economic survival.”

With no black models and no known black artists to look up to, there were no footsteps to follow. Lane greatly admired Matisse. “My whole education had been European. I didn’t know about the black artists. For me they were non-existent,” she says. “In fact, Canada wasn’t accepted in the art world. Do you know of any internationally known artists from Canada?” Lane searched for art that she could relate to, and found it in ancient Egypt. African sculpture she felt was more aesthetically pleasing so she incorporated it into her work. Through perseverance, courage and a true belief that she was put on this earth to share her gift, Lane developed a unique style and stayed true to her vision. She’s a Depression Era baby and a black, Canadian woman who leaped over obstacles gracefully to become an artistic pioneer. She credits her husband, Vince, for a good chunk of that success. He was her partner in life, love and the quest for spiritual awareness. Vince was a people person, an Italian with a stirring soul. He believed in Artis’s message and helped to produce it. They experienced the world together. But after 40 years of marriage, the man she’d asked God to deliver passed away. His spirit lives on in her art.

Today, Lane works out of her home in the middle of an Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles. Bearded fathers and covered mothers walk their children to and fro in the hot summer sun. This area of L.A. is as safe as it is charming. Artis wakes up at 5:30 and begins her metaphysical studies every morning. At six, she spends one hour practicing yoga, plus another hour of weights and aerobics. It’s a routine she’s been doing for decades and one reason this 83 year old woman looks so stunning. She doesn’t drink alcohol and eats as much organic food as possible: zucchini, eggplant, apple cider vinegar, that kind of thing. To add to her low stress level, she lives in the capitol of road rage yet has never driven a car here. Her daughter, Carol McCoo, is an incredibly successful hairstylist, with the same artistic flare as her mother. Along with framed photos of her family scattered throughout her home, there are snapshots of Artis with Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Clinton even signed his, “To Artis, with appreciation.” She’s fascinated by documentaries about civilizations, religions and music. On Sundays she reads the New York Times, but most of her reading during the week is Christian Science writings. She credits Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures with changing her life. Lane says, “At that point men were my god. The first man I married was very domineering. It explains that in my thinking – I couldn’t think any further than the man in my life. I thought, ‘How could a woman have the vision and understanding to write such a brilliant book?’ Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures gave me the strength and inspiration to sculpt the reality of our being with God as opposed to the lie.”

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Artis’ conversation about art is filled with wisdom. Every piece she creates has a higher purpose. There are two common threads that tie Lane’s work in portraiture, social injustice and metaphysics together – celebrating the human figure and freeing the human spirit. There’s a depth in Lane’s work that is way ahead of its time. The Smithsonian has a piece in its permanent collection, and in 2007, the California African American Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of 60 years of her work. But many others in the museum establishment have not caught up to Lane’s higher artistic ideas. “My motivation is trying to honor the source of this gift, leaving ego behind. Why would I try to change a preordained victory of good over evil? I can only say in my art, ‘Look into your own journey and give everything back to your Creator.’”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

Photography by: Harper Smith

www.artislane.com

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