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Gwen Gillen’s Sculpted Life

Nov. 4, 2010
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Gwen Gillen’s works include the sculpture of Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air that stands in downtown Minneapolis, the duck family on the bridge over the Milwaukee River on Wisconsin Avenue, and sensitive life-sized sculptures of Father Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, that stand outside the Order’s chapels near Pewaukee, Wis., Rome, Italy, and Puerto Rico. Her bust of longtime friend Anthony Hopkins resides in a London theater. At 66, she has a sly humor.

Tell me about your life in art.

I studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, but I became concerned about what actresses had to do to get roles, even in school. I loved theater, but I didn’t want to give myself to it in that sense. I went to Guam with my husband, who was in the Air Force, and got a job making drawings for the one newspaper. They gave me a gun to shoot the varmints—snakes and so forth—that crawled into my garage office. It’s a beautiful island, but so vulnerable to tidal waves and hurricanes. You realized how little people had. You learned to flow with it.

We came to Milwaukee in 1971 so my husband could go to school here, and I became Clair Richardson’s slave at the Skylight Theatre on Cathedral Square. I designed sets, painted sets, took care of his birds. It was a heck of a lot of work and Clair was something else! I made sculptures of people and animals, large and small. I didn’t want the figures to look frozen. I wanted you to feel you could contact them, meet heart to heart. Once I decided to leave theater, it’s been nothing but fun. I did what I wanted to do, but I never knew beforehand what that was. You have to go with what you are. If you do things just for money, it will be terribly boring. If you do what feels worth doing, money is a side benefit.

What are you working on now?

A life-sized sculpture of a murdered policeman commissioned by his son. The body came easily, but the head has been a real beast. Sometimes you run into blocks, but I’ve never had such problems. I have to credit it to the fact that he was murdered. This is my last sculpture. My hands won’t take it anymore. I do cartooning now. I draw on the computer. I never pre-plan these. I just start doodling. I stop when I see something. I have fun with it. I follow the line. Sometimes it goes nowhere. Let it go, then. That’s part of being an artist, if you will.


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