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Starr Fellow Kevin Gallagher on Rodin, rural Illinois, and his RA Schools residency

Published 10 December 2021

The Starr Fellowship provides a bursary and a studio at the RA Schools for a U.S. artist to develop their practice – we met 2021 Starr Fellow Kevin Gallagher.

  • From the Winter 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    I am working at the RA Schools as part of a year-long residency called the Starr Fellowship, open to one American artist each year. I became curious about the residency because, while I had been based in Europe for around 10 years, I had little knowledge of London. When I trained as an artist in Chicago, there was a lot of scepticism around craft – people never spoke about how objects were produced – and I thought the RA might give me a space to think about traditional sculpture techniques, such as mould-making. I was also interested in the tutoring aspects of the fellowship.

    In my studio here at the Schools, part of my focus has been on how I can make sculpture at a larger scale than before. Earlier this year Phyllida Barlow RA gave a talk at the Schools and I found it fascinating that the scale of her sculpture was basically limited to her garage for 20 or 30 years. But yet she never really shrunk her work – she would just make things in pieces. I like the idea that even when you’re within a small space, you can think ambitiously.

  • As an artist I have been trained in a trajectory of art history and then all of a sudden I now have the opportunity to encounter these objects in real life.

  • The residency culminates in an exhibition of my work in the RA’s Weston Studio. One sculpture series is comprised of corn forms made from Jesmonite. Chicago is in Illinois, a state which is made up mostly of corn fields and other farmland. There is a 1960s building in Chicago, Marina City, that is called ‘the corn cob’ because of the appearance of its two towers, which look like they are covered in corn kernels. Corn interests me because it has fascinating links to American identity, and it also has this almost mythical potential to transform itself. You can eat corn, but it can also become ethanol, animal feed, bioplastics.

    My father is a retired biologist, and he introduced me to the work in the 1940s of the American geneticist Barbara McClintock. She worked with corn to prove the inheritance of genes, by documenting the migration of coloured kernels through generations of corn. Her photographs are gorgeous, so that has been an inspiring visual resource.

  • Corn Stalk Specimen (2), 1942

    Corn Stalk Specimen (2), 1942

    Barbara McClintock

  • One incredible thing about London is the endless amount of exhibitions you can see, and these free, encyclopaedic museums – you walk into the British Museum and “oh, there’s the Rosetta Stone, it’s smaller than I thought it would be”. As an artist I have been trained in a trajectory of art history and then all of a sudden I now have the opportunity to encounter these objects in real life.

    I have been thinking about Auguste Rodin’s plaster works, after visiting Tate Modern’s show of the sculptor. These raw forms prompt you to consider the activity of making art rather than just the thing that has been made. In the sculpture Burghers of Calais (1884–89), a few of the men have the same hand – Rodin used it multiple times, positioned in different ways. One of my recent sculptures is this big, messy cityscape of upright corns, like skyscrapers. It is a monstrous recycling of the forms that I had already used: I don’t know if I would have made it without seeing that Rodin show.

    The Starr Fellow Show is on display in the Weston Studio at the Royal Academy until 7th January 2022.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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