By Patricia Caso/May 14, 2017
Photos: Kristen Visbal
Black/White Photos: Federica Valabrega
“Be Bold For Change” was the theme for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017. I wonder how many of us would see that boldness in any given little girl. Kristen Visbal, a noted sculptor, found that boldness and a way to inspire conversation on women’s roles, attitudes and future when she was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors to create a sculpture, “Fearless Girl.”
“I think the work is an important statement not just for the empowerment of women, both inside and outside of the financial world, but it also serves as an example for all young women.” Kristen Visbal
“Fearless Girl” stands facing Wall Street’s famed “Charging Bull.” Kristen’s work ignited a firestorm of opinion. I wanted to know more about how she came up with her unique sculpture and her own background. I grabbed some precious time from Kristen in between doing what she does best, creating remarkable bronze sculptures using something called the lost wax process. ..
EYE: Did you foresee the amount of debate that ensued over your “Fearless Girl” sculpture in New York’s Financial District? Is this the kind of debate over art an artist hopes for?
KRISTEN: Absolutely. I think it is art at its very best. It generates debate and discussion and brings something to light. The time has certainly come with this issue of equal pay for women and the lack of representation of women on boards. 17% of women on boards vs. 50% of women in the workforce are things we need to pay attention to and maybe people weren’t. I’m very excited about the response! I am humbled as well. Did I foresee it? No, not at this level.
In fact, when I walked away from the installation, I said to the other people on the Committee, “Look, people are either going to love it or hate it.” And I’m so excited that they love it. It would have been awful if it happened the other way.
EYE: Arturo Di Modica, who created “Charging Bull”, criticized the placement of “Fearless Girl.” I read that you understood his point and you admire his work. Please explain.
KRISTEN: I definitely admire his work and have always loved the “Charging Bull.” I remember driving by the “Charging Bull” and thinking I love it and wishing I had made it. Mr. Di Modica is a great artist. I love the work and I love that he put it out there for the people.
I feel like these two statues together symbolize the collaboration that we are calling for between men and women. I think the work is an important statement not just for the empowerment of women, both inside and outside of the financial world, but it also serves as an example for all young women.
It is very rewarding to see so many young girls stand by “Fearless Girl”, assume the same pose and link their arms with her.
This empowerment of women begins with young girls in the home, supported by parents who encourage both their male and female children to be the best they can be, personally and professionally. Parents who treat their children equally…that’s where collaboration between men and women for the greatest good begins.
EYE: So, you think “Fearless Girl” ended up in the perfect place? Or is there a better place for her?
KRISTEN: Both sculptures are strong in their own right. Do I think she can stand on her own? Yes, I do! However, the original message made a statement specific to the call for gender diversity in corporate leadership, specifically the financial community. The message is better exemplified by placing “Fearless Girl” near the “Charging Bull” which has always represented a male dominant financial community.
Though “Fearless Girl” can stand alone, the point of the work is conveyed more clearly in proximity to the Bull. Removing it would diminish everything she has come to represent, the call for gender diversity in leadership, equality of pay and the empowerment of women world-wide.
After all, “Charging Bull” has stood alone for 28 years and represents the strength of the American people, the bull market and the strong American financial market. “Fearless Girl” doesn’t change any of that. Her placement at a respectful distance from the bull makes the statement that women are part of the financial community and are on equal footing with men. Studies show the inclusion of women in leadership leads to more diverse business decisions, increased profits and an improved business culture.
EYE: Do you see yourself as an activist?
KRISTEN: I’ve been sculpting for 19 years behind these four walls. I am not out there as an activist. I believe we all bring something unique to the table. A woman doesn’t have to be aggressive. She just has to know that she is entitled to success.
However, she must first fulfill the job requirements. Employers need look for the best person to fill the position and by searching for the right candidate in this unbiased fashion, gender diversity in leadership will be achieved.
During the interview process, women should seek a business environment which will nourish them professionally and allow them to thrive. There is a great deal of research that supports this collaboration between men and women making good business sense.
EYE: Did you base “Fearless Girl” on anyone in particular?
KRISTEN: I was looking for a 48″ tall child and I called a friend whose daughter was about the right height. I asked her if she would model for me.
I told her to imagine being strong in front of a great big bull. She assumed the perfect posture. She stuck out her chest and tilted her chin up, but she looked a little belligerent and I wanted a strong yet non-confrontational demeanor. I took great pains to create a face that was soft but determined, confident but not haughty.
So we toned that down a lot because we were really adamant about her looking non-confrontational, not having an angry expression, very much tempered.
Later we decided “Fearless Girl” needed a more ethnic look so that she would be universally appealing to all women. There’s a beautiful Latina girl who lives not too far from my studio. I set her up in the same position and photographed her every ten degrees in a full circle.
So, the first model was referenced for the figure and the portrait was initially based on the Latina girl. In the end, most of the distinguishing features of the portrait were removed. I ended up adlibbing, seeking balance in the features. The work is not a portrait of any one child but, instead, is a universal child.
EYE: What would you say defines your work as a sculptor?
KRISTEN: People who buy my work love the detail. I would say that the use of motion is also an important aspect of my sculpture. I like to capture a split second in time.
Motion is evident in my wildlife series. I want viewers to feel and see the energy that motion imparts. Realism is technical and anatomy includes a great deal of rules. Motion adds energy to a work and keeps it interesting. I am very attracted to motion. As an artist, when I see an emotional reaction to my work, I feel it validates the composition.
EYE: You painted your first painting around age 10, but you pursued a career in marketing before returning to art at 30. What motivated your return?
KRISTEN: As a child, I was always playing with magic markers; I took drawing lessons from my mother and I painted a bit. I would make paintings as Christmas presents for my family. I loved art but I never felt one could make a living as an artist. So I went to school as a marketing major. Actually, you have to be able to market yourself as an artist, as it turns out.
After a ten year break, I returned to college for graphic design with a focus in packaging. I thought I’d be creating perfume bottles. Before I got into the course work, I took an independent study class in clay. I also took a sculpture class.
I was very excited about sculpture and when I dug my hands in clay, I felt like I’d done it before even though I hadn’t. I changed my major and thought if I don’t do it now, I will never know if I can make it as an artist. Everything else would be dancing around what I really wanted to do. I’d always felt most comfortable being creative.
EYE: Exactly what is lost wax casting and why do you love it so much?
KRISTEN: When I first saw cast bronzes, I thought they were very dark, but what is so beautiful about lost wax casting is that I can work in clay, my chosen medium, and produce a work that will last thousands of years,
In the process of lost wax casting or cire perdue (Latin), you have to make two molds, the second one in a material that will stand up to the heat of the molten metal. It’s exciting but there are many things that can go wrong.
It’s a complicated way to achieve the final product. The process is 6,000 years old but many new materials have been incorporated to the process over time. If we were to all die in some world disaster, some of these bronze sculptures would probably still be found.
As a student I worked with stone, wood, steel and ceramics. All of these mediums chip, crack and break. I love that bronze sculpture lasts forever, that I can work in clay and that I can make multiples of a work that takes so many hours to create.
EYE: Have you found there are barriers for women sculptors?
KRISTEN: Although I don’t know of any study, there are very few women making public art. Only once in my career have I felt that if I were a man, I would be treated differently. I’ve been very fortunate in my life, including in the hotel career I had. I had very supportive parents who said I could do anything and I could be anything. I believed them. They stood by that.
I kind of approached my career with the idea that “If they can do it (create large scale sculpture), I can do it” and I was lucky. That being said, I’ve gotten many emotional emails from women who have difficulty rising up the corporate ladder.
EYE: Are you interested in making an impact in all your work?
KRISTEN: Addressing issues through art is ideal but it hasn’t been a driving force in my work. I do love that “Fearless Girl” is creating such a buzz, however, and if I can make a difference in this way with my art perhaps I will create more statement works like her.
I love the sea first and all of its creatures, but endangered animals have also held interest for me as a manner in which to document these species. I have created many sculptures of endangered species including a Bengal tiger, red-cockaded woodpecker and four different sea turtles in a series which will eventually encompass all six of the endangered sea turtles.
EYE: Do you have some advice for beginning sculptors?
KRISTEN: Join a major sculpture organization like Allied Artists, the International Sculpture Center in New Jersey and the National Sculpture Society in New York. These organizations are a good place to gather information regarding materials, exhibits and how and where to produce cast bronze.
Exhibit when possible, issue press releases in order to generate interest in your work and follow up on the resulting inquiries. People will not buy from you unless you are visible.
You can be a fantastic sculptor. But, if you do not know how to market yourself and you do not know how to handle the business aspects of art, you are never going to make it. You need to find a way to separate yourself from the rest. For me, it is high detail and the use of motion.
EYE: What is next on your horizon?
KRISTEN: I have been commissioned to create a sculpture of Alexander Hamilton for the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut for 2018. The work is to be unveiled in October 2018. My greatest interest is to focus my attention on a personal series in distortion as well as on the abstract.
EYE: What is the greatest satisfaction you’ve taken from your career thus far?
KRISTEN: I am constantly trying to balance my personal and professional life. The incredible amount of hours it takes for each project prevents me from spending time with family, friends and at special events way too often.
However, the completion of a large work is always very satisfying. The response to “Fearless Girl” has been overwhelming and humbling but enormously satisfying. I am thrilled to be able to use my art in a manner I hope will affect real change.
My hope is that “Fearless Girl” continues as a beacon for gender diversity in leadership and for the collaboration of men and women in business. She has become a symbol of empowerment for all women.
EYE: Thank you, Kristen for your time and insights! Continued success to you! Kristen’s portfolio can be found here and is well worth looking at if you cannot see her work in person.