“When I heard the words ‘classical figurative sculpture’, I thought this is a place that really interests me,” says AAU Sculpture Chair Lawrence Noble, recalling his first reaction to the possibility of heading up the university’s sculpture department at the Cannery in San Francisco. “It just hit me right where I live in terms of what my work symbolized and what a wonderful opportunity it would be to explain the 40 year adventure I’d been on.”
Lawrence Noble, who built a solid reputation as a graphic designer and movie poster illustrator in the 1970s, launched his acclaimed sculptural career in 1980 when a chance viewing of The Empire Strikes Back inspired the artist to try his hand at sculpture. “It was the character Yoda,” says Noble. “After I saw him, I just felt this need to express the inspiration into three dimensions, not my usual two. Some things just exceed our ability to completely understand them.”
Since that brush with the Force three decades ago, Noble has evolved into a master sculptor, counting bronze installations of Civil War General Philip H. Sheridan in Chicago, The California Firefighters’ Memorial, the San Bernardino County Peace Officers’ Memorial, and a new life-size Yoda for Lucasfilm’s Presidio headquarters in San Francisco among his many public commissions since 1990.
I recently sat down with Lawrence at the Cannery campus to discuss his new role as Sculpture Chair at Academy of Art University:
How did you find AAU, or how did AAU find you?
I was recommended to AAU by Eugene Daub, who is one of America’s foremost sculptors. We have a good relationship, respect for each other’s work, and we’ve known each other for decades. So I felt good that he felt good enough about me to recommend me here.
I had some conversations with President [Elisa] Stephens, and came to find out we were in alignment about how we felt about teaching in general. She was looking for someone who was both a strong figurative sculptor and working out in the field, because she wanted to bring that experience to bear in the classroom.
You started in graphic design and illustration, and eventually moved into sculpture. How has that evolution influenced your curriculum at AAU Sculpture?
It’s rounding out the artist, as I like to say. Sculpture is influenced by illustration, and illustration is influenced by the drawing and the graphic design that preceded it. So I rely on my drawing skills, I rely on my graphic design skills to present those drawing skills, and I rely on both of those skills to present a sculptural idea. I can assure you that without those two – without drawing, without graphic design – I would have been dead in the water.
So you favor a skills-based curriculum?
I believe it’s very important for us to teach skills – that’s what this university is all about, in my understanding, and it’s a university founded by artists for artists by an art director. And they decided I can help a whole lot of young students by teaching them how to draw and how to paint, teaching them how to do what I do. And I set about doing that.
We teach students skills that they can take with them on their journeys — because every artist who comes to the Academy is on a journey. And since we won’t be there for the next leg of their journey, I have decided that it’s important for this department to give them basic skills – either modeling skills, figure modeling skills, drawing skills, design skills – not in an effort to change them, but in an effort to arm them.
What has your long career as an artist brought to your role as Chair of Sculpture at AAU?
My evolution as an artist has just been on-the-job training. And that’s really what industry helps do. It forces you to suit up. If you want to survive, you suit up. In that process, you either survive or you don’t. You learn or you don’t. That’s what continually comes up as you’re speaking to students. And I think that it’s a good thing to bring teachers in who have something to talk about. I have and continue to find an enormous reservoir of information as it pertains to a given student-teaching scenario. As I stated to the students today, I’ve made every mistake in the book over a period of decades, and I’m handing you the short version. And I don’t want you [students] to go through the same process that I went through. In fact I wish that I had had me for a teacher when I was learning. Art is a gift, but it’s also a responsibility. Should you choose to accept the gift, I would think that you would also welcome that responsibility, which is to pass it on.
What do you think AAU Sculpture is uniquely qualified to provide its students?
We’re purpose-driven in our sincere attempt to educate the young artists of tomorrow. Arm them with skills, arm them with an understanding about what the field is about, and that’s where our experienced faculty comes into play big time. Without that understanding that the faculty brings on a daily basis to every class, the students would just get a list of what to know without an understanding of its application within various industries. Students aren’t coming here to get on a bandwagon. They’re coming here to get trained.
Why the move from central San Francisco out to the edge of the Bay at the Cannery?
I believe it’s the best move we could have possibly made. It helps seat us in the center of our campus, which is San Francisco. And by the center I mean the seat of historical precedence. We’re right here where much of California’s history’s been made. The Cannery was and is a historic building, with purpose. And for many years, this was a hive of activity that served an industry. I think to get it back into that role is just a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s inspiring for the students, inspiring for the faculty, and for the administration to position us with the indemnity that they do gives us a great sense of their support.
Where do you hope the sculpture department will be in the next two years?
I would hope that it would be right here, only quite a bit bigger. I think we can make more of a difference in our purpose if we are able to communicate with those interested students from around the world who hear our voice and respond to it. We have a voice and we’re using it to announce who we are and what we offer and why we’re here and what we’re all about. I think the excitement of being in San Francisco, following your passion and having the city at your feet is very provocative — it’s the kind of elements that come together to create magic.