The Clay Is His Thing -- Everett Dupen Turned His Back On Architecture And Molded His Life Around The Art Of Sculpture

Everett DuPen is a short stocky man with bright observant eyes, muscular arms and beefy hands that can mold a lump of clay into a fragile face in seconds. At 81, he has made a living capturing gods and people in clay, plaster and bronze.

In one corner, a muscular Prometheus raises his fist in defiance; in another, a girl jumps rope. An elegant couple dances a ballet by the front door. The sculptures leap, they dance and they fall.

"My mother wanted me to be an architect," says DuPen, who once sketched Ronald Reagan in charcoal at the University of Southern California, where he learned about building structures. "She told me I could make a living that way."

Instead, the wayward architect became a master sculptor and teacher of generations of sculptors on a campus more famous for its research than its appreciation of art.

Now, a lifetime of effort is being recognized. DuPen, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, will have his first retrospective show March 29 to April 29 at the Frye Art Museum.

The exhibit will feature 20 drawings and more than 40 pieces of sculpture. They show a sculptor can find emotion in stone and metal.

"Everett has been a force in the art community," says Steven Broocks , an assistant to the director at Frye. "We wanted to put on a show featuring a Seattle artist who has had a long-term impact locally and nationally. Everett's always been there."

The National Sculpture Society and the National Academy of Design have honored DuPen's work. One of his more famous pieces is "Tree of Life," which depicts the evolution of man from fish to mammal to human. Located north of the Seattle Center coliseum, the piece was commissioned for the 1962 World's Fair. The "tree" stands in a pool, its branches reaching toward the sky.

DuPen's work has been displayed at major exhibits in Kansas City, San Francisco and New York. His commissioned work can be found at many Seattle churches. At the UW, DuPen casted a three-foot-tall bust of former college president, Charles Odegaard, for the undergraduate library, and an intricate abstract called "Gold Leaf over Wood," for the Faculty Club.

"His sculpture is incredibly animated," says former student Richard Hestekind, now a sculptor himself. "You sense life within his work."

In one work, children made of bronze leap effortlessly while lithe acrobats tiptoe on one another's shoulders. A mother gently cradles her baby in "Lullaby." Though still, she seems to rock, comforting her child.

"I want my work to have a sense of motion and flight," says DuPen, whose hands move in time to his speech. "I want it to defy weight, get them off the ground and make them less earthy."

Each sculpture should tell a story with meaning, DuPen says. Otherwise, why bother?

He's not shy about his likes and dislikes. He minces no words, for instance, about "Hammering Man," Seattle's most famous giant.

"He's gruesome, just awful," Dupen says. " . . . He can't fit in the museum. He can't fit into the street. He can't fit anywhere."

Weeks before the exhibit, he and his wife, Charlotte, rummage through his life's work. There are saints, nudes and angels everywhere. When a visitor stumbles over "Falling Man," a tiny bronze figure in mid-topple, DuPen chuckles. "Don't worry about it. He's already fallen."

In "Growing Up," a slender youth holds a piece of driftwood and stares ahead with a look that blends of self-confidence and uncertainty. He is Stuart, DuPen's oldest son, at age 13, a teenager leaving boyhood behind.

"I like to capture ideas before they disappear," says DuPen. "Ideas are always fleeting. They never stand still long enough for me."

DuPen chose his favorite character from Greek mythology, Prometheus, who brought fire down from the heavens and was punished by the gods, to be his story teller in his 1971 piece, "Upheaval." The bronze sculpture shows the emotion students felt toward the Vietnam War, mixing Greek mythology with campus activism.

Prometheus lies on his side, one arm propping himself up. Though down, he thrusts one arm in the air, shaking his fist at the gods. "It was a wonderful time when students cared about life and worried about the war," DuPen said. " . . . There was such upheaval and such defiance of authority."

DuPen began teaching at the UW in 1945 and later became chairman of the sculpture division. He told his students to use their eyes like musicians use their ears.

Victor Picou, president of the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association, remembers a class taught by DuPen in 1974. The students recreated live models in clay and plaster. Like medical students, they learned the human body. The bones go here. The muscles go there. The curves come later.

"He was difficult in that he would encourage you to do your best. You had to study the model and be familiar with the human anatomy. The idea was to transfer what you saw to another scale and into clay," Picou recalls.

Years after Picou graduated, he was having trouble creating his first life-size figure in wire and plaster-of-Paris. Though he hadn't talked to DuPen in years, Picou called for advice.

DuPen and his wife arrived at Picou's studio the same day to help. They worked together as if they had been friends for years.

DuPen retired in 1982, but still teaches night classes occasionally.

"There are a lot of artists who teach by marching their egos forward," says Hestekind. "That's not Everett. He teaches with each individual in mind."