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Sculptor at large

Murray Waldren meets Andrew Rogers

AS artists go, he's definitely not the stereotype. The stylish three-piece suit, immaculately organised briefcase, electronic efficiency and to-the-second punctuality mark Andrew Rogers more as the archetypal businessman. Which is apt, given that's what he is. And very successfully, too. But come the close of commerce and this Melbourne retailer Clark Kents into his other persona: Supersculptor.

The monumental works (some close to 7 metres in height) he has created have leapt oceans and cultures to stand prominently in collections in Europe, the United States and South-East Asia. And in Israel, where last year he constructed a massive geoglyph in the Arava Desert.

Geoglyphs are a prehistoric tradition of carving and decorating entire landscapes into artforms, and Rogers' is one of the largest after the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 55 metre long chalk outline carved into a hillside in Dorset, England, and the enigmatic Nasca lines in the Peruvian desert. At 38 x 33 metres, using 540 cubic metres of material and clad with wadi (river bed) sandstone, To Life reproduces two letters of the ancient Hebrew alphabet out of the Torah. Together they signify longevity, "an appropriate symbol," he says, "for an area where the desert is being made to bloom, and where development is creating an environment that is attracting wildlife like gazelles."

To Life took nearly five weeks to construct, with a workforce of three 5th-year architecture students, 2 Israeli engineers and 20 skilled Arabic stone masons working 12-hour days and using centuries-old masonry methods. "The major difficulty was in getting them, because they were house builders, to understand the abstract form with all its curves and undulations. It took days to stop them building vertical walls - eventually I drew the universal curves of a woman's body in the air ... they all had 3 or 4 wives each and understood immediately."

The sculpture was designed, he says, "to the nth degree before I left Australia. I drafted it over the Internet live by email, with graphics whizzing backwards and forwards between structural engineers to ensure it was sound and safe. Every point on that object was plotted. But when I got to the desert and saw this vast space and just rough piles of stone, I wondered what I had let myself in for."

Local conditions and customs came into play. And the stone masons were "very religious as well; the moment it came time to pray, they did, never mind that you might be in the middle of a concrete pour in 40C heat."

Located near the Old Spice route and not far from the historic Nabatean Ruins and the Dead Sea, the sculpture had other prerequisites. It had to be sited where it would survive flood, giant storms and shifting sand dunes, be visible to observers from a nearby mountain, be ecologically compatible, and be a lure and inspiration for tourists to the nearby town of Saffir.

And satisfy its creator's boy-building-giant-sandcastle urges? "Probably - part of the beauty of it lay in just doing it. It was a challenge to conceive, and to use what were beautiful materials, these giant limestone rocks that have been rolled along riverbeds for thousands of years and were now rounded shapes and wonderful objects in themselves."

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NOW 53, Rogers was Melbourne-raised to a family that appreciated art but never practised. A Monash University graduate, he went early into the family business, married, fathered three sons, focused on growing the company. Mercantile demands, however, meant he also became a regular traveller and haunter of European art galleries. He had been a part-time painter since the late 60s but a decade ago he had an epiphany in Paris. For 20 years he had been a twice-yearly pilgrim to the Rodin Gallery and there, in 1989, standing awed by the master's work, he suddenly "got the inescapable feeling I had to do that too. And not just because we had the same initials." He laughs ruefully. "I had boundless enthusiasm, and happily no idea of the challenge involved."

With his commercially-honed can-doism rampant, he imported a 2 metre block of marble. "It's still in my studio, grinning back at me and my ignorance, with this half-finished form emerging from it. It showed me how spectacularly great the masters really were." Undaunted, he went back to basics, starting with a clay sculpture of his left hand. "I needed to master the human body before I moved into abstraction." Slowly he conquered lost-wax techniques, then bronze casting and metal construction. Slowly, commissions grew from a trickle to a pour, with "people wanting me to do things bigger and bigger. And that's the real technical and creative challenge that invigorates me."

Rogers sees no dichotomy in his commerce/artistic duality: "Both business and sculpting are creative pursuits," he au contraires. "You just have to keep them separate because each demands total focus. But business does require many of the skills necessary for working with large-scale sculpture. And whereas sculpting is a process of introspection and projection to some extent, business involves constant interaction with people. It's a nice balance for me, a yin and yang."

Abuzz with ideas, idealism and international commissions, he's now completing a 17-sculpture order, each up to 4 metres tall, for a sculpture park in Dallas, Texas, as well as commissions for Jerusalem city and the Hebrew University there. Last October his fašade of the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne was unveiled, "the largest work I've yet done, six bronze columns 6.5 metres tall, sculpted from top to bottom. They took 18 months of emotion because of the subject matter." In December, a casting of his work Flora Exemplar (editions of which already stand in the US, Israel and Japan) was unveiled in Vienna by the US Ambassador to Austria. Its inscription reads, in part: "In dedication to a world where genocide and hate have no place."

And in August he'll undertake his next international venture, an expedition to Peru to construct a bronze and granite "history of Andean man - it will be symbolic and spiritual, and appropriate to the local native population. In all my work, whether figurative or abstract, I'm always seeking to better express the spirit of mankind. I want something that people can take a message from. I agree with Henry Moore's dictum that 'there's truth in material' - I spend a lot of time trying to get it to perfection. And I like to see people touch my works, climb all over them and jump on them - that's a great test of whether a piece is user-friendly."

Sculpting, he last-words, "is simply an all-encompassing passion, and it's getting more intense. I spend probably a third of my time working at it, and the balance of any spare time thinking about it. You can burn up with it. And I do."

This article appeared first in The Australian Magazine. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2000


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