February 2006 Issue
Alan Cottrill creates bronze sculptures at his studio/gallery in Zanesville and is encouraging other artists to open workspaces in the area.
Alan Cottrill's passion for sculpting didn't manifest itself until he touched clay for the first time in his late 30s. Growing up in Zanesville in, as he describes, "a dirt poor family," he jokingly says that his only exposure to art was as "a nickname for Arthur."
During a successful business career, Cottrill, 53, traveled with U.S. trade delegations throughout Europe and Asia, and had the opportunity to visit the world's greatest museums. He began to collect paintings, and realized early on that "art is the perfect vehicle for emotional expression." Later, he saw that the physicality of sculpting perfectly suited both his intense personality and physical nature. The word "primal" also comes up frequently in Cottrill's analysis of himself and his art. In fact, he believes that we all have a primal connection with clay, because humans have been sculpting vessels out of clay for millennia.
If you visit his 17,500-square-foot studio and gallery in downtown Zanesville, about 60 miles east of Columbus, you'll see what he means. The first-floor studio displays works in progress, and typically you find the artist himself immersed in his craft. More than 300 of his bronze sculptures are on display in the second-floor gallery, along with educational materials, including photos and accompanying narratives that detail the stages of creating a sculpture. Cottrill co-owns a bronze foundry, Coppermill Bronzeworks, with his lifelong friend Charles Leasure. All of Cottrill's pieces (plus the works of other artists) are cast at this foundry, built in 1995 and located on Leasure's farm about four miles west of the studio. Together, the studio, gallery and foundry integrate all elements of sculpture - from idea to installation - so the artist and his 10 employees, half of whom are sculptors themselves, retain control of the entire process. The sculptures range from busts to larger-than-life-size human and animal figures, and each seems to reflect the energy and passion of its creator. Cottrill's work has been described as "powerful, virile, and full of life" by Life, Energy and Complexity, a group of art and craft critics. That assessment not only reflects his raw talent, but also his years of study in New York at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, and at Columbia Medical Center, where he studied anatomy. He also traveled extensively in Europe, particularly Italy and France, to, as he puts it, "hone his aesthetic sense."
Most of Cottrill's pieces are commissioned, and include installations throughout the country for public buildings - institutions of higher learning that include the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Lewis University in Chicago, and the California University of Pennsylvania - as well as churches, parks and even cemeteries. A few years ago, England's Prince Andrew received a maquette, or small model, of Cottrill's sculpture of George C. Marshall as a gift from the city of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The city had commissioned the sculpture from Cottrill for its town plaza, and Prince Andrew attended the dedication ceremonies. Marshall was born and raised in Uniontown, and was the architect of the "Marshall Plan," which outlined the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.
Although Cottrill doesn't usually title his pieces (he doesn't think it matters to the work), one of the installations he designed for the California University of Pennsylvania is named "The Ascent of Humanity," because he says its theme is "one culture building upon another." It is his only piece configured to fit on and around the corner of a building. His Zanesville gallery has a display on how this sculpture was designed, constructed and installed. Ironically, the university building is scheduled for demolition this year, but the sculpture and the sections of the building on which it is installed will remain standing.
Cottrill also loves to incorporate symbolism in his pieces; for example, one of his favorite works consists of two tombstones, one each for his wife Susan and himself. Each of his six children's faces is sculpted around the sides of the pieces and mushrooms sprout along the base. He intends this to show the interconnectedness of all life, a rebirth from decaying matter, and a kind of tribute to the natural order of things. Cottrill admits that he is fascinated with all aspects of nature and the life cycle and weaves such references into his work.
He also claims to have a huge ego, a statement that he says is bolstered by his goal "to be the best living figurative sculptor in the world." And as a savvy businessperson (Cottrill started a pizza franchise in Washington, Pennsylvania, that made him a multimillionaire by the time he was 30), he knows that to reach a goal, he must have a plan. Thus, he intends to "outwork, outthink and outfeel" every other living sculptor. He's fond of referring to an astrophysics concept called a "point of singularity," that, in relation to art or business, means all energies are focused toward a single goal.
Fortunately, Cottrill can focus on more that one goal and achieve success. While still living in Pennsylvania, he purchased a vacant building in his hometown of Zanesville. Reminding him of buildings in New York's Soho district, the space has an open interior and huge industrial windows. He had already constructed the foundry, and had been transporting his pieces to Zanesville for casting. When the lease expired on his workspace in Pennsylvania in 2003, he moved his studio and gallery to the Zanesville building, located within the 48 square blocks that make up downtown. He immediately began work on his second goal - to establish a vibrant, downtown artists' colony.
When Cottrill returned to Zanesville three years ago, he was the only artist in the downtown area. He set a five-year goal of attracting 50 to 100 artists to live and work there, and he contacted community leaders and media to share his vision. He also maintains a high profile as an artist himself - one reason for the larger-than-life-size sculptures along the street in front of his studio and a monument of Chief Nemacolin, with arms outstretched to the sky, on the roof. Now there are 30 artists who have studios near his, working in a variety of media. Cottrill's studio/gallery is a popular downtown attraction, with 200 to 300 visitors a week.
Although he often says that he's "trying to shut down the business side of himself," Cottrill has bought and sold several buildings in the downtown area, including, most recently, his purchase of the old Weller Pottery factory, a 72,000-square-foot building that he hopes to turn into a museum. Cottrill and community officials are also lobbying Governor Bob Taft to designate Zanesville the site for a proposed Ohio Artisan Center. If this happens, he says, "Zanesville will once again be as nationally known as it was 100 years ago for its art-pottery industry."
Cottrill's current sculpture project relates to his vision of making the Zanesville area a haven for artists. In the area from Dresden through Nelsonville, with Zanesville and the towns of Roseville/Crooksville as the hub (dubbed "the clay corridor" because its soil helped spawn a huge pottery industry), Cottrill plans to build and install 100, 7-foot-tall vases, in part to benefit three organizations - the proposed Weller Pottery Museum, the Appalachian Potters Guild and the Zanesville Artists' Colony - and also to call attention to the area's unique artistic heritage.