If you ski regularly at Vail, you know sculptor Gail Folwell’s work. In fact, you pass by it every time you get on or off the slopes. “The Edge,” a 2 1/2-ton, twice-life-size bronze sculpture that pays tribute to local Olympians, was installed at Vail’s Mountain Plaza in 2008. It was Folwell’s first monumental piece, but since then she has done multiple large commissions, including two for the Denver Art Museum (“The Peloton” and “Tete à Tete”); a sculpture depicting key figures in the 1936 NFL draft outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; a swimmer mid-stroke above the pool at Bowling Green State University; and “The Pitch,” outside a ballpark in Frisco, Tex. The sculptor, a native of Canada who recalls making wire sports figures as a kid to sell to friends, came to Colorado more than three decades ago to study graphic design at DU, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in 1983. She had her own sports graphics company after college, then taught design at DU and Metro State before realizing that sculpture was her destiny. Today, the artist, who is married to architect Michael Folwell, makes pieces that range from the gargantuan to the small (the latter through her bronze hardware company, Handle the Art Hardware). We met up with her at her Boulder studio.
You started as a graphic designer. How did you switch to sculpture?
I grew up playing every kind of sport, so a few years after college I started my own sports graphics company that went gangbusters. I really thought graphic design was my livelihood forever. But I also started taking classes on the side—landscape classes, portrait painting—until one day I took a sculpture class, and just completely freaked out. It was as if someone spoke Swahili to me and I understood. It was all there—all of the things that were in my head that I needed to express.
How did you morph into doing sculptures of athletes?
I took a sculpture class that had a model, and she didn’t resonate with me at all. She looked bored. She even fell asleep. And then the instructor looked at my work and said, “So you can sculpt the figure, but she’s dead.” He made that lightbulb go off in my head that you don’t sculpt what you see; it’s all about your connection with what you’re creating. I didn’t connect with her. I realized I wanted to sculpt my stuff: skiers and racers and swimmers and my life and my children.
Your sports sculptures have a very definite aesthetic.
I take musculature and then accentuate or exaggerate it to make certain things look more intense. As soon as you put these hard angles and cut lines in, the agitated space you’re in when you’re competing at that top kill-or-be-killed level shows through. If you were just to take a photograph and sculpt from there, it wouldn’t have the same kind of intensity. Abstraction is all about what you’re feeling.
And why are sports so important in our culture?
I really like doing sports sculptures because sports are something that bring a lot of us together. It’s the new church, sad as that may seem. We all need to find our tribes, and sports is something that we have all talked about since cavemen painted hunters on the walls of caves. Today, with all the stresses people have, sports are everyone’s escape.