Kim Bernadas is a renowned neoclassical sculptor and instructor at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art. She specializes in life size bronze and ceramic portrait sculpture commissioned by private individuals as well as public works projects. Kim has a bright spacious studio in the Garden District where she showed us some of her smaller projects and sat down for an interview.
NCM: What led you to become a professional sculptor as opposed to just sculpting as a hobby?
Kim: It started out as a hobby. I had just graduated from college with a degree in physical therapy. But I had always drawn and taken art classes, and didn’t do much with it. And one day a friend told me, “ I’m taking a sculpture class at the Academy. Would you like to join me?”
And I said, “ Yeah! That sounds like fun!”
The minute I put my hands in the clay, I knew that this was something for me. And at the end of the year, the Academy had a student show and my pieces were selling! So I thought, “This is something that I might want to do!”
I started entering competitions and Calls to Artists. People started calling me to ask if I would sculpt for them.
NCM: So your first official art school was the Academy?
Kim: I took some art classes at UNO and Delgado, but didn’t graduate with a degree. I took sculpture from 1991 to 1995 at the Academy. After that I had my own studio. Now I teach at the Academy.
NCM: Is anyone else in your family an artist?
Kim: My mom used to paint and I have a couple of cousins that were painters. But no one was a professional artist.
NCM: What made you decide to create more traditional sculpture as opposed to abstract sculpture?
Kim: I really like interacting with people. I like the human form and the portrait aspect of creating the head and face. I like getting to know the essence of people. I like abstract art as a viewer, but I am not as fond of the process of creating it.
NCM: Are you originally from New Orleans?
Kim: Yes, I am from New Orleans!
NCM: Where do you create all of these sculptures?
Kim: I do most of my work in my studio at home. But when I am doing a bigger piece, I rent a warehouse space.
NCM: When you start a piece, do you make it out of clay first and then make a mold?
Kim: Yes, I make all of my molds myself except for the life size pieces. I send the life size pieces to the foundry in Houston. They make the mold off of the clay that I sculpt. Once you get the mold, you can cast as many as you need. You need a full fledged foundry for this level of work and there is no local foundry in New Orleans that is professional enough for me. So I have to have it crated and shipped to Houston.
NCM: That increases your costs a lot doesn’t it?
Kim: It definitely does. Plus, I have to fly up there to check on things periodically. There is also the hazard of packing it properly so that it doesn’t vibrate and break.
A lot of times when a moist clay sculpture is in the back of one of those big trucks (even when we strap it down and everything) the clay gets soft like butter. By the time it gets to Houston, it might have little cracks that I need to go repair. That is why I make most of my molds here. I don’t want to deal with shipping it. But when they are big, it’s too hard for me to make the mold by myself.
NCM: You are a petite woman. What made you choose an occupation that is traditionally a male occupation?
Kim: The sculpting is somewhat physical, but I have always worked with power tools. My dad taught me how to do a lot of that. I could build my own structures. I hire people to do the things I can’t do.
For example, I am not the best welder. So when I have to do an armature for a life size piece, I have a friend that will work with me to bend the rebar. He will also weld it to the frame for me. I will have the maquette and supervise what he’s doing to make sure that it matches. I hire help for whatever I can’t do. The sculptures are also on a base with wheels. You just push them around.
Making the molds is getting harder as I get older because they are plaster and heavy. I have to get someone to give me a hand sometimes. If the mold is over four feet tall, I will send that off to the foundry. If the piece is a commission, I also try to factor that cost in. I don’t like shipping things that I don’t have to ship because they usually get there damaged and I have to fly up there and repair them, which costs money.
Getting back to your question about being a woman. When I started out twenty years ago, there was a commission up in Ponchatoula for a life size sculpture of a Native American woman. I was one of the finalists and I had to produce a maquette and be interviewed by their jury. The jurors were: the sheriff, a second grade art teacher, a fireman, and the guy that ran the donut shop. The three good ole boys immediately told me, “You don’t look like you can handle anything big! We don’t think you can do this!”
I pointed out to them that I had a portfolio of life size sculptures that I had done. I even asked them if they had seen my work. And they said, “Yeah, but we don’t think you can handle it.”
And I told them, “I have already produced work of this size. I can do it.”
There have been many challenges regarding people’s perceptions of what a female sculptor can do. Sculpture has traditionally been a very male dominated field, but there have been other female sculptors throughout history. For example, Rodin had a mistress named Camille Claudel who was also an excellent sculptor. She worked a lot of his sculptures for him, but was always pushed to the back and hardly got any notoriety. It’s not that I am a super feminist, I just think that there has been a sort of a mindset that since sculpture is heavy a woman can’t do it.
NCM: How do you construct the life size pieces?
Kim: The last four life size pieces that I did had a foam understructure on top of the armature. I used spray foam and then I carved out the basic shapes a little bit thinner than what I would do. Then I covered the structure with clay about 2 inches thick. The clay was very malleable, but the understructure was very light. So it wasn’t very heavy and I could push it all around.
NCM: Why do you prefer oil-based clay over water-based clay?
Kim: Many years back I switched to oil based clay which is more professional grade because the water-based clay is very heavy and holds a lot of water. It cracks a lot and shrinks a lot. So when you sculpt something like a hand, it might still crack and fall apart the next day. This can happen even if you cover it and protect it. It’s just too delicate.
The oil-based clay can be left open and it doesn’t mildew like the water-based clay. But the water-based clay is fun to work with. It has a sensuous feel to it, whereas the oil-based clay comes in these blocks. Like a big block of butter.
Oil-based clay has three or four grades of viscosity. You determine which grade you need based on the type of project and what type of climate you live in. In a hardened state oil-based clay has to be pre-heated a little bit so that it is malleable. Then if you leave your sculpture for a little while you have to blow-torch it and heat it a little bit to get it soft again. But for pieces that are more delicate, it’s great.
NCM: Do you ever get bored making sculpture?
Kim: Oh no, definitely not! Each piece challenges me.That’s what I love about sculpting. I have to figure out how I am going to make each piece work. It’s a combination of knowing how to do use the tools, figure out how it will fit into a space, and also be aesthetically pleasing.
I just finished a commission of a vase with nine tulips. Each tulip represented a family member in the arrangement. The mother had passed away and she loved tulips. I had to figure out how to do the petals and the leaves thin so that they looked real, but they also had to stay in place. I had to use oil-based clay to keep it from cracking.
Right now I am working with Rene Fransen, a very well known landscape architect. He has worked in Long Vue Gardens and does a lot of the upscale landscaping in the region. Currently he is involved in the renovations of the Peltier Plantation in Houma. Donald Rouse and his partner purchased the huge plantation that they are completely refurbishing.
I was hired to do two cat sculptures for the outdoor garden because they love cats. One of them is sort of an old style Renaissance fountain head. They gave me a picture of their deceased cat and they want his likeness spouting water at the back of the pool.
They also have an arched wall that I have designed a cat reaching down and pawing at the water. In order to make these sculptures, I had to get a copy of their architectural plans and recreate the exact radius of the arch of that wall so that the cat was perched where his feet would properly sit on the wall. I recreated that arch and sculpted the cat on top of it.
NCM: How do you price something like that? How do you bid something like that?
Kim: My first source is experience after doing so many different projects. I know how much things are going to cost to be shipped and I can estimate what its going to cost me to have my pedestal built and shipped. So I bid based on past experience. But my main gage is what the foundry charges. I send a drawing or a maquette of the piece to them and I tell them how big it is going to be. Then the foundry gives me a bid on what he will charge me to do a casting of the bronze with shipping a tax included. From there I can calculate my costs on top of that figure and come up with a bid.
NCM: How much percentage do you bump up for yourself?
Kim: There are several components. If I am commissioned to make a sculpture that looks like something specific (a person, someone’s pet, etc.) it’s going to cost more than if I can use any model of my choice. This is because it takes me longer to sculpt the exact details that the customer wants.
For example, I sculpted a likeness of a famous pastor here in town for his family. He had passed away and all they had to give me were old photos of him at limited angles. From those photos, I had to figure out how tall he was, how much he weighed, and then factor that into the average head size on a six-foot tall man. I also had his sons come in so that I could photograph them from different angles so that I could get an approximate head size. So the more time I spent doing this, the more I had to charge for the piece.
Another example would be if a customer says they want me to sculpt a dog for them, and it doesn’t have to be a specific dog. Then that is going to take a lot less time for me and I will charge less.
In 2011, when I received the commission for the Birth of a Muse down on Prytania. The Arts Council had a form that said that as a general rule the commission that an artist should receive should be about 25% of the budget. They gave me that as sort of their guideline. Because the foundry is a big part of each estimate for a life size sculpture.
For instance, on a life size sculpture right now, the foundry would charge me for the mold and the bronze anywhere from $19,000 to $22,000. So as far as the budget goes, I owe $22,000 to the foundry before I can begin to make money. I don’t pay him until I am done.
I collect money three times over the process of making each piece: initiation of the contract, approval of the clay, and then final installation. I stagger it this way so I don’t get burned. I have this in my contract. In the first two steps I get two-thirds of the money and I haven’t paid the foundry anything. So that if they bomb out on me after paying the first two, I haven’t paid the foundry anything. I never take a commission where I am going to be paid at the end.
I also give clients a generalized time frame depending on the foundry’s availability. The client has to understand that I am pretty accurate with my time frame, but I can’t control how fast the foundry works. However, if the customer comes in and decides that they want me to change something in the clay and it extends my work, then my time frame extends. That contract protects both me and the client.
NCM: Does this method also hold true for public works projects?
Kim: When I get asked to create something for public works projects, they usually contact me, give me a commission, and ask me to give them a detailed budget projecting the costs for the project. (Most of my proposals are at least 20 pages long.) I do a descriptive analysis of exactly how the pose is going to be and what it will be made out of down to the patina and measurements. Then I do a construction proposal and how it will be installed.
For example, if a crane is going to be needed to drop the sculpture into place, it needs to be in the construction proposal. And then sometimes, because of bureaucracy, you don’t get the first payment for four months. In the meantime, you are praying that all of those people you contacted for prices will stick by those prices. That is because most foundries will tell you that this is a 90 day quote. However, most public works projects are not approved in 90 days. Luckily I have a good relationship with the foundry I use and he is not going to go up on me unless I change the size or the complexity of something.
But I also have to consider factors. Once I had a pedestal maker quote me a price of $1,200, but he left town and I had to find someone else to do it. The new pedestal maker I found wanted $2,800, which was a $1600 difference. So I always factor in a percentage of a contingency just in case part of the process becomes more expensive. I always protect myself. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are a lot of issues, but I have been doing this a long time and I have developed methods to protect myself. In the beginning its much harder finding the resources and vendors to support you in your work. I have learned which projects are going to take more time and resources. For example, when I sculpted those tulips, I had to figure out how I was going to sculpt a tulip with the stamen that holds the pollen. I knew it was going to be intricate. So I prepared my prices for the extra amount of time that was going to take me.
Sometimes you don’t anticipate an issue, but things just happen. I remember when I shipped one of my very first life-size pieces (I was still using water-based clay at that time). I drove the truck with my husband to Texas and the piece was damaged along the way. The truck was bouncing around and the sculpture wasn’t weighted down properly. When we got there the head was cracked in half and fell on the floor. Both arms had separated from the body and both props she was using came off. I had at least 20 hours of repair work. But I couldn’t stay, so I drove back home and then returned later to do the repair work.
NCM: Do you think sculptors encounter more problems that other artists?
Kim: Every artist has their own issues, I always envy painters because their canvas doesn’t weigh that much and when you are finished painting, your product is done. As a sculptor, you work so diligently sculpting every detail, but once you send it to the foundry and they make a mold, if you get 90% of what you put in, you should kiss the ground. Because they have to get a wax from the mold and when they are working the wax, the wax people might be smudging something that you thought was important.
One time I had a sculpture where the arms were extended and the hands were open. I sent it to the foundry to make the mold and had received the finished piece back here in New Orleans. I was about to call the client to say that it was ready, but something wasn’t right and I kept looking at it to try to figure it out. Then I realized that it had six fingers on one of the hands.
The wax person had added a finger! She looked at it from the back and thought that two fingers were touching and she needed to separate them. So then I had 5 fingers and a thumb on the finished piece. I called the foundry and told them what happened and they tried to claim that she hadn’t done it. I sent it back to them and found out that the wax person was new and she was taking too many liberties on peoples pieces.
I like my pieces to have certain areas that are not totally finished. For example, I often want the face to be more powerful and detailed, but the fingernails don’t need to be perfect and exact. This wax person was smoothing down the rough spots and resculpting it. A sculptor’s support staff can really make or break you. It is physically impossible to do every step yourself.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Kim: There are many sculptors that I love Bernini, Rodin, and Chester French are a few. But Malvina Hoffman is a female sculptor that I have studied and gone back to over and over again. Her work can be seen in Chicago in the Hall of Man. There are very few female sculptors that had much notoriety in the early 20th Century. I always like to mention her because I don’t think that she got enough attention.
Malvina was commissioned by the Field Museum to travel around the world and find one representational subject that would depict the person of that region for an exhibition called The Races of Mankind. She had to come up with hundreds of sculptures.
Back then, there weren’t as many modern conveniences or foundries. So she would actually travel on these little bitty boats and go into small remote areas to sculpt in clay that she carried with her and then make a rudimentary waste mold to give to boatmen to transport back to New York. It took her several years, which is pretty amazing. These weren’t just portraits, they were life-size sculptures.
In some instances, she had to find old furniture and wood to set on fire in order to generate enough heat to melt the wax for the molds. Her work is gorgeous and very sensitive. Her husband was a photographer who traveled with her and captured everything on film. I admire her tenacity and the adventures that she would tackle.
There are sculptors that take two years to do one piece, but Malvina went out and created hundreds in the same amount of time. There are a lot of modern day people that I admire, but I always revert back to her.
The Beaux-Arts sculptors that created all of those pieces in Chicago in the late 19th Century were great. McKim, Mead, and White created all of those beautiful fountains for the public up there. That was a time when sculpture was really hot.
NCM: Is there a lot of demand for original sculpture here in New Orleans?
Kim: When I travel out West, I see a lot more sculpture than I see down here. It is difficult to get people involved in sculpture. In New Orleans, people don’t think anything of spending $10,000 or $20,000 to ride in a krewe. But its hard to get them to spend the same amount of money on a sculpture for their yard.
NCM: How do you differentiate your work from other sculptors? What do you feel makes yours special and stand out?
Kim: I can create a sculpture that is going to capture the essence of someone. If you hire me to sculpt a sculpture of someone that is important to you, it will look like that person.
I also like to make dynamic work that is very gestural. I love the Birth of a Muse on Prytania Street and The Muses that I did for the Jefferson Performing Arts because they have a lot of gestural qualities. I think that is also a strongpoint.
NCM: What do you wish you knew about sculpting in bronze before you got started?
Kim: It’s a lot of stress on your back and I wish I had started earlier! I’m thankful that I was able to find what my purpose was in life and I know what I want to do with my life. I just get frustrated sometimes because I don’t have enough time to create everything I want to create.
NCM: Do you think that all of those anatomy courses you took while you were studying physical therapy have helped you as a sculptor?
Kim: Art and creative output occurs from a different part of your brain than scientific output. I have had a lot of people in the medical field take my class and they have not been the most talented of students. It is not about memorizing anatomical facts, it is about how your eye sees shapes and relates them to what you are doing. I never think of anatomy form when I am sculpting. I think about form as a series of shapes.
NCM: What materials do you sculpt in other than bronze?
Kim: Sometimes I will sculpt in clay and then fire it in a kiln. Because some people can’t afford a bronze. And sometimes I will paint the sculptures. Occasionally I will make something in hydrostone and then paint it. I have done epoxy casting, but I am not very fond of using all of those chemicals. Sometimes I just like the rawness of the fired pieces.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Kim: I don’t find that I get much negative criticism. If someone does criticize me, I think that I can usually learn from it. I try to look at it as a way to improve.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite of your work, could you do it?
Kim: Right now my favorite life size piece is Birth of a Muse over on Prytania Street. That is my favorite public art piece. My favorite personal art would probably be things that are more sentimental to me. The portraits of my grandmother, my daughter’s portrait, and my grandchildren are important to me.
The Birth of Muse has a genuine beautiful essence about her. I had a great model. I was able to sculpt her breasts the way a woman’s breasts would naturally fall as opposed to the Playboy Bunny look. It feels like a natural woman. I like the whole Neo-Classic style that I imposed on her with the use of the drapery and the tambourine. I love drapery and headpieces. I like to sculpt things that have a sort of fabric element to it as well. She represents song and dance.
NCM: Where exactly is it located on Prytania?
Kim: It’s located on the corner of Prytania and Terpsichore Streets in the Lower Garden District. That piece was destined to happen. The stars and universe aligned just right. The Arts Council Percent for Arts with the Lower Garden District Association commissioned the piece. It was the first post Katrina sculpture for the City. Before they chose me, they decided to put the piece on that semi-lunate stage on Terpsichore Street. I chose the right muse for the right street. It was a serendipitous situation. Afterwards that piece inspired Jefferson Beautification to commission me to do the four muses for the front of the Jefferson Performing Arts Center.
NCM: Do you have an art gallery that you work with? How does someone buy a sculpture from you?
Kim: They come directly to me. Since I am associated with the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, I periodically put pieces in their gallery. I used to have a lot of pieces at the Garden District Gallery, but it sold and turned into a photography gallery. I don’t have an active association with a gallery. Buying directly from me is probably the best for my clients right now. My website is www.kimbernadas.com.
In New Orleans, I find that a lot of the art dealers don’t want to give sculptors a break when it comes to taking their commission. Sculptors have such a high investment in each piece. For example, in today’s dollars a 30” piece would cost me about $1,800 to cast. So just to get my money back from the casting, I would have to charge at least $3600 if the gallery is going to take 50%. Therefore, for me to make a profit, I have to charge an exorbitant price.
Out West, galleries have a different percentage breakdown for painters and sculptors because they know we have such a high investment cost. Usually they give their sculptors 70% and only take 30% because they know those artists are really making only 30% out of that 70%. Until New Orleans has a gallery that is a little more friendly to sculptors, I don’t find gallery representation works for me.