NEW YORK—When we look at a work of art we immediately enter into a relationship with the artist who made it. Even centuries later we can sense the feelings that moved the artists to create those pieces. Echoing Leo Tolstoy, artists, especially artists who are sincere in evoking their selected feelings in their works, become a means of uniting people and of shaping culture in the grand scheme of things.
As a young artist who is just beginning to hone her own vision, Zoe Dufour emphasized her intention to be sincere in creating her sculptures, in showing the various emotional states and dynamics of how one being relates to another, whether between one person and another, or between people and animals. But before choosing her subject matter, Dufour starts by looking within.
“Through art I’m trying to clarify my perception of the world, so that it’s shareable with others. I would hope that through cultivating myself to become a better person, I can share a vision of positivity and beauty, provide a lens for others to see life with a different perspective,” Dufour said at the Grand Central Atelier where she works as an artist in residence.
Speaking softly about her life and work, Dufour showed a highly sensitive demeanor, yet with a fearless undercurrent. She wants to convey empathy in her work, which begins with how she works in the studio. The connection she develops with the model while sculpting becomes an integrated part of the finished piece.
“When I start sculpting someone, initially they are a little uncomfortable. It’s a pretty intimate process to be standing really close to someone while really looking at them—sometimes just a few inches away,” she said. “As I’m looking at a series of forms, I find what is beautiful and harmonious in their physicality, and when I talk with them it gives me a better sense of who they are as a person. I find a deeper appreciation the longer we work together. Eventually, toward the end, I feel there is a coming together of the likeness of the model in the sculpture and my sense of them as a person,” she said.
Lesson From a Horse
Dufour has loved drawing, sculpting, and making things with her hands since she was child living in California. She also has always loved horses.
At 12 she was given a horse, Miley, that had been left out to pasture and hadn’t been handled for years. “He outweighed me probably by about a 1,000 pounds. I couldn’t make him do anything. I blamed him for all that I thought was bad in our relationship,” she said.
Then she recalled watching a man named Paul, who had learned natural horsemanship. She saw him leading his horse out to the pasture effortlessly, and the horse did not wear anything on its head. It contrasted so much with her experience at that time. “I couldn’t lead Miley without him dragging me—waterski style,” she recalled, laughing.
She asked Paul for help and he worked with Miley briefly. It wasn’t an overnight fix, but Dufour saw how effective and kind Paul’s interaction was with Miley, and how the horse responded immediately.
“I realized it wasn’t that Miley was being bad. His behavior was just a result of unclear communication. That was really eye opening for me—to accept responsibility for a situation and to do what I could to change it, instead of blaming something or someone else, which I think has helped me a lot in my relationships with people—with my family, friends, and boyfriend,” Dufour said.
At 17 she had her first job training horses, but a few years later she was faced with having to make a choice.
Dufour admires the Russian horse trainer, Alexander Nevzorov. His Haute Ecole method of working in partnership with horses does not use any form of constraints—no bridles and bits—and no form of coercion whatsoever.
But after realizing that most of the equine industry is dominated and fraught with questionable to even cruel methods, Dufour said, “I didn’t want to be a part of an industry that wasn’t kind or ultimately beneficial to all parties involved.”
“Even when I found that partnership and connection working with horses incredibly gratifying, I felt that few people were looking for that. It made me really sad to go to horse shows or to see blatant abuse that was deemed okay, just because everyone else seemed to be in agreement that that was just how it was done,” she said.
Dedicated to Art From Green Pastures to a Concrete Jungle
Working with horses was a huge part of Dufour’s life, so it was hard to walk away from that career path. But she also wanted to depict horses realistically in her drawings. She then studied at the Ashland Academy of Art in Oregon, which moved to Hawaii (now Atelier Maui) a year after she started studying.
She seriously considered moving to Maui but decided against it. “I thought I’d probably just end up being a beach bum for the rest of my life,” she said, chuckling. Instead she moved to New York City in 2010.
“Honestly, I hated New York when I moved here. I guess it offended my sensibility. I just felt that people who are so removed from nature couldn’t live a healthy, natural lifestyle and that it made people grouchy,” she said. “New York has grown on me more and more every year. I think it’s just coming to a cultural understanding and finding a lifestyle in the city that fits,” she added. Dufour enjoys buying fresh produce at farmers markets in the city, and hiking and rock climbing upstate in her free time.
Laying a Foundation
Dufour studied at the Grand Central Atelier for five years, a year longer than atelier’s standard core curriculum, so that she could also learn sculpting. The artist, Jiwoong Cheh, who taught at the Grand Central Atelier for about seven years, was her most influential teacher. “Without him I don’t think I would have the appreciation that I now have for sculpture,” she said.
Now Dufour works a 9-to-5 job beside Cheh and continues to learn from him and other artists at StudioEis—a commercial studio that produces figurative sculptures and historical reproductions for museums and corporations. In the evenings and on weekends she works on her own sculptures at the Grand Central Atelier.
She plans to create a series of sculptures that depict animal and human interactions and has recently started working on her first horse sculpture.
Through working with horses, she learned to become more aware of her perception of things, which is essential in classical representational art. She described it, for lack of humbler words, as “the search for beauty, or the search for some truthfulness. It’s a process of becoming more aware of what exists around you, so you can be aware of your perception of things.”
As horses cannot communicate verbally with humans, she said you have to be very conscientious of how your actions could possibly affect them. “So I try to think about that when I’m sculpting someone, or about what the viewer’s experience would be in seeing the piece, once finished. Thinking empathetically is a direct result of my experience of working with horses,” she said.
But besides the feelings artists infuse in their creations, sculpture also entails a precise production process and complex technical aspects—for example, mixing chemicals in the correct ratios to make molds.
Dufour feels grateful for having the opportunity to cast and fabricate her own work and has been enjoying the process of learning to slow down and to plan ahead better.
“I tend to try something once without thinking it through and learn a lot from failing,” she said.
It has not been necessarily easy. She has had to learn to be more patient, realizing that taking shortcuts, eventually takes up more time. “Before when I would try to cast my piece, I would end up panicking in the middle of the process because I hadn’t set out all the materials I needed, or some material was setting too fast. I would forget stages, and try to go back to fix them. It would be like making muffins and then realizing that you forgot to put in eggs, and then you would have to somehow mix the right ratio of eggs into all the semi-cooked muffin cups,” she said.
As Dufour begins to build her body of work, we can look forward to what she aspires to create skillfully, with reverence for the old masters, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of her favorites. He is known for swaying the viewer into perceiving various emotional states between the beings represented in his sculptures.
“I really like that beautiful humor in life. If you really think about it, most of the things we go through, no matter how serious they are, there is an element of humor—sort of a ridiculousness to them. I like that lightness, even about the really serious things. That is what I aim for, to have that feeling of empathy and lightness,” she said.
Contemplating Leo Tolstoy’s understanding of art as an essential condition of human life, Dufour’s intention to convey empathy and levity in her works will be a welcome means of shaping culture.
Zoe Dufour’s work is currently on view in a group show at Eleventh Street Arts gallery in Long Island City, Queens, New York, until June 3.