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THE ARTIST'S VOICE: Sculptor Jill Viney

Barrow by Jill Viney
Barrow (Door) by Jill Viney
Barrow (Roof) by Jill Viney
Barrow by Jill Viney

In the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to visit prehistoric caves along the Dordogne River in France. The group was led by a museum anthropologist whose interest was early hominids. We hoped to see 12 caves in 9 days. Each day we traveled in a small bus exploring 3-5 hours underground and crisscrossing single lane roads above ground to our hotel. The group had a fervor for its goal, but the alternation between dark hours underground and light hours above ground made the trip seem like voyaging in a cocoon.

At Lascaux, a cave discovered in the 1960s, and visited by as many as 1,000 people a day, the cave deteriorated and had to be closed. A replica was built near the site. Since decades had passed, the cave had stabilized, and an original room could now be seen.

At 1:00, by appointment each day, five people could spend 20 minutes viewing the room. The group rotated patiently and my turn came. Traditionally in France, keys to a monument are given to a war veteran. The elderly man gave his speech about the primordial dream while we stood in three inches of chlorine to disinfect our shoes. The image of lost minutes ticking away in my head drove me to almost push the man aside, grab the key, turn the lock—when the guide opened the door. Straight ahead and high on a rock face were three stags with water to their chests crossing a swift river. They were drawn in bold strokes and exuded great vitality. Nearby, protruding from the ceiling and walls were boulders creating a bas-relief. The boulders had been colored a deep red ochre transforming them into reclining bison. These large animals filled the room with a monumental quiet resonance.

One of the last caves we visited was called Peche Merle. We started into the cave and found a generous chamber. Its walls were decorated with patches of negative hands and clusters of red dots.

Red oxide rock had been crushed into a powder and blown through the hollow bone of a bird. With a hand placed on the wall, the red powder had been blown at the hand, leaving a negative hand print: with thumb and forefinger touching, the hand was again held near the wall and red powder was blown into a circle. Hand after hand, circle after circle, spoke of an insistent creativity. The hands were particularly poignant because I felt the presence of those absent very strongly, a now and then duality. Many caves had multiple images overlapping since more than one group had used these caves. A new carbon study based on a fleck of paint has dated the caves we saw to range from 22-24,000 years ago.

We resumed walking. The path became narrow, singular, and seemed to turn back on itself. We lowered our heads for a rock outcropping. When we stood up and looked back, on the rock face were two astonishing horses. An elegant black line started at the nostrils, traced a small firm head, down a long neck to the withers and ended in a high rump. I couldn't take my eyes off the horses, energetic as if to move. My stare created a kind of tunnel vision, the horses seemed closer, and my surroundings blurred. When I returned to the "real moment," I realized the coordination of hand and eye in a cave artist worked exactly like my hand and eye and all contemporary artists. There was a vast chain of making that stretched through a long, long time and space.


My most recent work is a public sculpture, Barrow, on view at the Heron School of Art, University of Indiana & Purdue in Indianapolis. Currently, I am working on drawings that relate to that sculptural process.

Jill Viney, September 2009

Editor's Note: This essay is part of a new series of short reports from Yaddo's guest artists that will appear from time to time on our web site and in our printed publications. We are hopeful that "The Artist's Voice" will better acquaint the public with the artists who spend time at Yaddo and the work they do by allowing them to describe in their own words the work they do and what influences their creative process. To view the previous essay in the series, click here.