Gib Singleton’s sculptural legacy
With the odds stacked against Gib Singleton, no one would have predicted what profound effect he would impress upon the art world.
Even after Jacqueline Kennedy recruited him to restore Renaissance art lost to floods in Europe and the Vatican enlisted him to restore Michelangelo’s Pieta, Singleton still ended up often hungry, sleeping on beaches in Connecticut and selling his work on the streets of New York.
The son of a poor Cherokee sharecropper, Singleton fashioned toys out of mud and clay when he was 3 years old and by age 4, he began drawing religious figures in the dirt. By 16, he built a furnace out of a steel drum and vacuum cleaner to melt metal so he could sculpt.
After a stint in the Army, he worked his way through college and earned a scholarship at the Chicago Art Institute, as well as a Fulbright Fellowship.
In the 1970s, he decided to move to Santa Fe to create Western art.
He continued to sculpt and paint both Western and religious art throughout his life, never distinguishing between the two, but rather saying, “Any time your subject is a human being, it’s a spiritual work.” He elongated his sculptures, portraying how “living life thins you out on the range, or as a saint,” says John Goekler, director of the Gib Singleton Museum of Fine Art. “(They portray) struggle, nobility, strength … fierce independence and courage.”
His interpretations of Jesus highlighted torment.
“He wanted to portray the Christ that laid down his life for the forgiveness of sins,” says Galerie Züger owner of Galerie Züger.
Singleton’s bowed Christ on the cross so impressed the Vatican that popes since John Paul II carried it on their crosier.
Singleton transferred that representation of woe to one of his last pieces before he died on Feb. 28, 2014. He depicted Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, with shoulders slumped, knowing he was about to be assassinated.
“Never has there been a piece that has sold faster,” Züger says. “In my opinion, and the opinion of major collectors around the world, he’s one of the finest sculptors that ever lived in the United States.”’
Singleton left behind two main legacies. First, he launched a new genre of art: Emotional Realism, which affects people viscerally.
“It’s realistic enough to be a portrayal and yet it’s abstract enough to put your own feelings into the piece,” Goekler says. “It gives you that opportunity to let feelings surface. It pulls stuff out of you.”
Or, as Züger puts it: “If you look at a piece of (his) art, it grabs you. You will not get it out of your mind. It’s so emotional, it haunts you.”
Second, Singleton introduced religious art to mainstream America.
Some of Singleton’s personal transformations occurred around the time of 9/11, when Americans were also looking for meaning within mortality, and his art spoke to that, Goekler says. In addition to losing a daughter in 2000, doctors told Singleton he had seven days to live in 2004. He went to hospice, where caregivers took him off oxygen for emphysema, but when priests from El Santuario de Chimayo gave him his last rites, they also said he must complete his sculptures of the 14 stations of the cross, of which he only had three. Singleton started on the fourth, and grew stronger.
“Every time he completed one he got stronger,” Züger says. “It was as amazing as you could believe.”
Today, his stations regularly bring people to tears, Goekler says. “He just had a way of making you look inside through his art.
“There is a power to his pieces that stops us. Almost everybody has a powerful response to it. Gib would say what really matters is that you come at it from your heart. You don’t intellectualize your way through a Gib Singleton piece.”