Hands of the Artist
Norcal Artist Lucius M. Upshaw…
A painter doodles on canvas. A sculptor doodles in stone.
At barely 2 pm in his Redding home, Lucius M. Upshaw holds a finished work in his hand. This morning he picked up a chisel and a file, and selected a small black stone. That rock is now a face, looking perhaps a bit haggard, eyes closed, lolling tongue. Upshaw dismisses this piece as a trifle but, in fact, this hand-carved, hand-sanded toss-off is only the most recent work by this 84-year-old artist’s hands.
These are the hands that wrought such works of public art as the copper eagle that watches over guests at the Sheraton Hotel, the copper dog standing guard at the Turtle Bay East Open Space, and the copper fountainhead at Hilltop and Cypress, where a copper eagle sights a copper salmon swimming up a spiraling river.
And that’s just a sample of Upshaw’s works. His other sculptures, in wood, stone and bronze, have for more than 50 years seen numerous showings, the most recent a mezzanine show at Redding City Hall. Currently, he has permanent exhibits at Goldenstein Gallery in Sedona, Ariz. and at Valley Bronze of Oregon in Joseph. His favorite subjects include scenes of nature, animals and people.
Upshaw says he learned the technique he uses for his copper works from a college teacher who adapted it from an earlier culture. “The Vikings covered their ships with copper that strengthened the wood and kept the bugs out,” he says. “I carve redwood, and then cut and fit individual pieces copper over the carved wood surface. I use a ball peen hammer to conform the metal to the surface.
His wife, Deborah, knows well that sound. “Oh yes, I can hear it clear out in the kitchen,” she says. “It’s this tap-tap-tap of hammer, thousands of taps. Tens of thousands of taps. But I’m OK with it. I’m happy that he is working and doing what he loves.”
Those thousands of taps shape the metal to the wood, sometimes leaving large areas of copper smooth, as for the skin on a human figure. The tens of thousands of taps take things to a new level. By peening countless tiny dents, Upshaw creates a relief pattern that can become scales on fish or reptile, or the textured stone on a mountain or anything he thinks would look better roughened.
But he’s not always tap-tap-tapping to create. This multi-talented artist is also a painter, and during quieter sessions he produces drawings and oil paintings which, too, have received wide acclaim. He took Best of Show at a North Valley Art League national competition with his painting “Tu Do, Saigon.”
Upshaw seemed destined for the military. Born during the year of Pearl Harbor, his early memories include a family story of an uncle who survived being taken prisoner by the Japanese during the World War II. Nearing the age of 6, he picked up a pencil and started to draw. “I drew war scenes, with detailed violence,” he recalls. “It was a big-time connection with my uncle.”
As he neared age 12, a sister who was attending Antelope Valley College in his hometown of Lancaster began taking him to art class with her, introducing the budding artist to a formal education in painting. From there, he added other subjects to his martial repertoire, such as space ships and other science fiction fare.
Nearing age 20, he enlisted in the Army, and soon drew real scenes of war in Vietnam. He also drew subjects off the battlefield, particularly focusing on women in Vietnamese bars. Over the course of his life, he would revisit this theme, as seen in his “Tu do, Saigon” NVAL art show winner of 2014. As recently as last year, he painted a Vietnamese bar girl leaning bored on the counter top, a work he now claims as his favorite. “It’s the mood,” he explains mysteriously.
After returning from the war, Upshaw pursued an engineering degree at Humboldt College. There, he met Melvin Schuler, an art teacher who showed him a new way to see. “He was heavy into abstract,” the former art student recalls. “It was just outrageous, mostly. Like completely out of the stream of consciousness. Most of my paintings are very realistic. My sculptures are a stylized realism. I put on some hard edges they don’t have in nature. Kick it up a notch, you know?”
With a degree and a wife, Upshaw moved to the nearest population center, Redding, to find work in engineering. But to him, draftsman was just a job; his passion was sculpture. Eventually, he would leave work and devote full time to his art. He and Deborah both became artistic pillars in the community, and both are now volunteers at North Valley Art League’s Carter House Gallery in Caldwell Park.
Upshaw still enters his works in shows and every once in while conducts a presentation to share tricks of the trade. Deborah recalls a few years ago, 12 lucky children showed up at a rare workshop of his in a summer arts program, where he taught them how he shapes clay. “Every child took home their own clay sculpture that day,” she says.
For older artists thinking about getting serious about their craft, this long-learned pro has some advice: “It’s a very different path. You have to be dedicated. School is a good way to go. It’s important to have all that knowledge, and you can get help from your teachers. It can be a real misery trip without money, so galleries are the only way to go. Hang in there. Keep trying.”
Upshaw keeps trying. Though dismissive of his stone doodle of this morning, he admits he enjoyed the challenge. “It was difficult,” he says, “because the rock is so hard.” His wife says he does things like this all the time, concluding, “He just always needs to be doing something with his hands.”
He knows what he’s doing. “I’m still emerging,” he says. “I don’t think there’s an end to it. I don’t think I’ll ever stop emerging.” •
Lucius M. Upshaw
North Valley Art League
Carter House Gallery
48 Quartz Hill Road, Redding