Pushing the envelope

Celebrated sculptor breaks boundaries while demanding a seat at the table

Autin Wright is an artist who has lived here in the capital city for almost 30 years while creating art that's appreciated around the world. He radiates a quiet sense of joy and serenity, and his spirituality finds expression in his works, which he gladly points out along with pieces by other prominent artists in the almost surreal world of forms at Grounds for Sculpture where the Trenton Journal recently conducted an interview with the artist. Autin began his life in art with figurative drawing and painting, but he is best known for his sculptures that are mostly, but not exclusively abstract. His “The Sleep” is a piece that he has revisited over the years in different materials, with various arrangements of facial features showing a progression in and out of sleep: “I’m always trying to experiment with different ideas, switch them around, maybe expand on them,” said Autin.

Wright's "The Sleep" at Ground for Sculpture

During our visit we stopped by a pond where Seward Johnson commissioned Wright’s site-specific work entitled, “Carmelita.” This light-colored fiberglass structure reads like a mythical fish or sea-serpent, but Autin took his inspiration for it from a blade of grass. It is stationary but conveys a sense of movement. At its base under the water it is actually several pieces, but it appears as one twisting form coiling in and out of the water, culminating at one end with what one imagines as the creature’s mouth.

"Carmelita"

Autin is among the many individuals whose presence brings vitality to Trenton’s thriving arts community. Born in Jamaica, Mr. Wright graduated from the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, where he was honored with a Certificate of Merit as well as gold, silver, and two bronze medals at Jamaica’s Annual Festival of Fine Arts Exhibition. His work was included in the National Fine Arts Exhibition in Jamaica, and he was the recipient of the Simon Bolivar Sculpture Competition Award hosted by the Venezuelan Embassy in Jamaica. He came to the United States in 1987 to attend the Connecticut Institute of Art in Greenwich. After graduation he became the Technical Supervisor for Paint and Patina at the Johnson Atelier at Grounds for Sculpture, the popular sculpture park and museum in Hamilton Township. He maintains his own studio at the Johnson Atelier and has worked alongside many internationally-known sculptors, assisting in the production of works by Red Grooms, George Segal, and others. He lives on Pearl Street, near the Trenton Transit Center, where one of his neighbors is Mike Gyampo, an artist from Ghana.

Out of all of the accomplishments in his career, Autin is most proud of “Camille,” his sculpture at Penn Medicine’s Princeton Health Care System in Plainsboro, NJ. His career as an artist wasn't supported by his family. "I never got any acknowledgement from my brother who was a doctor. I wish he saw more in what I did. My brother healed the body, but I hope people look at my work and feel better about themselves. I help people to feel good without me having to go to medical school," Autin said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Autin standing in front of his "Free Form II" at the Grounds of Sculpture

Organic shapes are a continuing theme in Autin's work: “You create an idea and then you cut out what is not necessary to create the message. You don’t want the message to be lost. I create an idea but I’m always trying to simplify and cut things away, or if it’s too simple maybe also sometimes adding things in.” A good example is “Sleep,” where he started thinking about the entire figure but trimmed down to the essential facial features to convey the feeling. He works in a full range of sculptural materials: wood, metal or fiberglass cast from clay originals, and carved stone, sometimes revisiting the same themes in different media. He continues to paint, although his main focus is sculpture. He usually works out his ideas in sketches or smaller clay models, but he sometimes works spontaneously with stone, making things up as he goes along. Autin displays several pieces that he carved out of one large block of Vermont marble, including a piece he is currently working on. The viewer sees how one volume would almost fit inside another, with shapes that read like a fabric that he has rolled up, leaving intriguing recesses and layers. His art ranges from $5,000 for wood tabletop pieces to $25,000 for larger, site-specific works.

“My idea is . . . the movement of a flat surface, but still having something almost like it’s alive. There’s volume to it. You do stuff and cover it with yourself, sometimes you have no idea what the final result is going to be, but it pulls you. I’m sure it’s part of my DNA. I feel it while I’m working. These pieces were my first time working without sketches. I just work with what’s there.”

Camille at Penn Medicine's Princeton Health Care System

Wright is an active member of Trenton's strong arts scene and a staunch supporter of venues such as Artworks, the Trenton Social, and the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. In 2019 he was part of “Stand-Up Men,” an exhibit of local African American men in the visual arts that celebrated African-American male artists and their use of canvas, photography, and sculpture to convey the pathos of what it means to exist as a man within the realm of Trenton’s Black culture and beyond.

While the requirements of sculpture bring certain challenges due to size, weight, and expense, Autin looks for opportunities to expand the range of art around the city and wants to be part of what nourishes it, especially as it represents the art of the local Black community. "I want my legacy to be known for using stones, wood, and other materials in an abstract, expressionist way that people may not associate with Black artists, but we've been doing this for years. Look at the pyramids the Egyptians built. I think that's important to know that there are people in Trenton working in a minimalist kind of design. It's sort of having a seat at the table, a voice so people can see the roundness of whats happening. I'd like people to see that there are other mediums being explored by Black artists."

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✉️ Got questions, story ideas or comments, contact: Kenneth@trentonjournal.com

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