Tom Schottman’s passion for natural forms and his nurturing core come through in his sculptures.
A long-time educator, Schottman raised five children of his own and for the past 10 years has mentored children at Stevens Elementary School in Burnt Hills. He started his “second career” in art at age 56.
Now at age 83, Schottman’s sculptures are in the collections of the Albany Institute and the Schenectady Museum and have been exhibited widely in the Capital Region and Vermont. He has shown frequently at the national exhibit of contemporary sculpture at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Mass.
His sculptures connect to the earth. Not just because they begin as clay, but also because the artist finds inspiration in the cliffs of mountains, the glacially transported boulders in the Adirondacks and in dramatically fractured rocks.
“We do a lot of hiking and sometimes I am brought up short by what I see. There will be something about a cliff or formation, the power of it. It’s inspiring,” he said. His wife, Ruth, is known throughout the area for her extensive knowledge of wildflowers and the couple have spent many hours trekking the region’s natural areas.
Tom takes what catches his eye and creates artworks that have often been interpreted as one figure protectively hovering over another. “My sculptures often deal with the affinity between people and the earth,” the artist said. The pieces don’t mimic the human figure but rather “capture a gesture and an emotional attitude that suggests a figure.”
The same idea holds true of a recent creation called “Entrances/Chambers: Four Forms.” Each of the forms is familiar and reminiscent of a familiar structure such as a silo, temple or home. Each has a narrow slit for the entrance way.
“The basic idea was moving into a tiny space with your mind and once inside sensing the chamber,” he said. The large sculptures beckon and though only chipmunks can actually get inside, the pieces are compelling in the same way Stonehenge fascinates or ancient ruins draw you closer.
“They are universal forms,” Schottman said. “These pieces appeal on many different levels. They are satisfying” to view, he said.
In his 27 years as an artist, Schottman has listened to other people’s interpretations of his art. One sculpture was seen as a loving couple by some viewers and as a clenched fist by another. People surprise him, Schottman said, adding that once others reveal their interpretation, he can often see what they saw in the piece.
It is perhaps this ability to step into another’s shoes that makes Schottman’s work so engaging. His art alludes to the figure but there are no eyes, noses or mouths. “I suggest a movement,” the artist said. Once, a dancer looked at one of his sculptures and did a dramatic whooshing step forward as if echoing the movement of the sculpture. “That was very satisfying,” Schottman said.
Though people often comment on how nurturing his art appears, the artist said he doesn’t “set out or plan to create a nurturing piece. It just occurs.”
Schottman credits this in part to his life’s story of caring for a large family and his career choices. He was the principal of Scotia-Glenville’s Lincoln Elementary School and a curriculum specialist in the Burnt Hills school district.
Throughout his first career in education, he studied art and art history and was mentored by fellow artists Bob Blood and Regis Brodie. After he retired, Schottman began taking a continuing education course at Skidmore College which allowed him to work with Brodie and in the ceramic studio. The seven-foot-high kilns allow him to fire his large works.
The large sculptures are created through a two-stage process. Schottman begins by playing with the clay and making maquettes — small models used to visualize and test shapes before creating a full-scale product.
To start the creative process, Schottman lays out gears, metal and wooden objects on a patio. He takes a 10- to 35-pound block of clay and literally throws it onto the objects. He then considers the impressions and makes “continual judgments concerning the objects to use, the angle at which to throw the clay and when to stop,” he said.
This is just the beginning. Schottman paddles, cuts, scrapes and tools texture into the clay.
“I find this technique very powerful. It brings to mind a variety of visual images and triggers a series of responses that work toward an artistic resolution in the form of a small sculpture,” he said.
Once a satisfactory model has been created, larger sculptures, three to six feet in height, are constructed as hollow forms using a building method where small, flattened, egg-shaped pats of a reddish clay build upon one another and are smoothed together in a variation of the method use to build a coiled pot. Various tools such as pieces of old saw blades and wooden paddles are used to provide surface detailing.
Schottman — like most clay artists — has his own formula for clay and uses a lot of iron oxide which gives the clay a reddish tone. Before firing, powdered iron oxide is rubbed on the bone-dry form. The excess is rubbed off with a paper towel. “This accentuates the texture and creates a patina,” he said.
Construction of a 6-foot form may take a month and drying an additional month. The pieces spend a day in a warm kiln below 210 degrees Fahrenheit before being slow fired to a temperature of 2,400 degrees. This creates a durable, non-porous stoneware that easily withstands the rigorous winters of the Northeast