Len Zeoli

Artist Statement

My sculpture arises from a lifelong interest in the origins of life and the universe, and from a deep inner questioning of what it means to be human. I was born just simply wanting to know who I was and am motivated by a curiosity about who we are and why we are here. Because I am deeply connected to nature, the first pieces I made were intended to represent buds coming out the ground in spring. As I pondered them, they took on the appearance of human figures. Although I create other sculptures, I always return to the abstract figurative form which still rewards me with the same surprise of discovery.

Before I became a sculptor, I was a craftsman in wood during which time I acquired a love of materials and a fascination with the ability to transform them. Materials speak to me through their visual properties, their history and their sheer physical presence. Handling, touching and shaping earth-centric materials connects me to the planet and makes me feel alive. I use wood, stone and steel in a sculptural context, experimenting with non-verbal ways to investigate the story of human consciousness and evolution.

I derive inspiration and courage from the strength of the life force I see in all things. I am more specifically inspired by the ancient rock art of Africa, Europe and America, and by Native American world view. I am inspired by the connection of people to one another, to their own inner spirit and to the cosmos. I work within a philosophical landscape I call The Ancestors. Their story is a record of the great Life Force that permeates the universes. A sculpture becomes successful for me when it possesses more absorbing emotional energy than a resemblance to any physical reality.

Most pieces begin with an intuitive or visual image in my mind imbued with symbolism and archetype. Models are often made to record and test ideas. Materials are then chosen that embody the idea in their visual and visceral qualities. My dominant process is carving as free hand shaping which allows for the most intimate connection between the sculpture and the idea it expresses. Once roughed out a sculpture still has a long way to go to refine its shape and surface qualities. The tactile qualities of my work call viewers to also touch it. Touching connects people to the sculpture and makes them a part of its history.


Len Zeoli, Bio

The Art of Questions

Len Zeoli came to be an artist through the circumstances of his life. The mastery of materials and a high degree of craftsmanship were bred into him. By his father, a mason of Italian heritage who ran a family construction business on the south shore of Boston. Results of their work can still be seen in the area which gives them an enduring presence that Len seeks to emulate in his own work.

The construction of physical realities from raw materials, a creative process both mental and physical, provided meaning for the young boy as it still does for the adult man today. Raw materials were all around in various natural or man-made forms just asking to be picked up and transformed into an object or structure that was envisioned in his brain. Len was always making something for himself, things like toys, lamps, lean-to’s or tree houses.

Len payed for his first college degree, a Bachelor of Arts in theology, by working construction with his father. He went into school with many questions but came out with few answers. The questions he had from as far back as he can remember remained. Who are we and how did we get here? How was the universe made and what is the nature of its ongoing creation? This search is still alive today and provides the main fuel for his art practice.

During his college years the new environmental movement brought awareness of our intimate connection with nature. As it was permeating the consciousness of the world, it also spoke to him. The words of Robinson Jeffers, “not man apart”, rang true for him at many levels. Len was galvanized and decided to pursue a new degree in ecology in order to be part of a transformation in society that seemed necessary and possible at the time.

Yet, as life is wont to do, there were larger global events at work. After college he was drafted for the war in Vietnam. Because Len could not fight in this war and love of country allowed no alternatives. he spent several years in Canada as a conscientious objector. There he framed houses, started a family and pursued university studies in the history and culture of the First Nations. This education exposed him to native art, and he resonated with the aesthetic which has roots in theenvironment and arises out of a belonging to nature.

Len returned from Canada to be closer to family, but soon found himself out of a job. He wanted to become a biologist rather than stay in the construction trades.  But work was scarce, money was tight, and another university degree seemed out of the question. As luck would have it, Len soon became involved in remodeling the kitchen of the house he was renting. It was a major turning point that led him to set up his first shop in Asheville, North Carolina. And thus began his career as a fine woodworker.

In the first years of his new adventure, Len was often over his head. He was grateful to his father who had taught him so well how to use tools, think for himself, and to put one’s heart into everything. With this background, Len accomplished projects and commissions in the areas of cabinetry, furniture, millwork and pattern making.

Always curious and wanting to understand his materials better he bought logs and a sawmill and learned to process wood for himself. The joy in sourcing wood and becoming intimate with it was aptly expressed by his adopted grandmother one day. As she watched the inside of a walnut log become exposed at the sawmill, she remarked in true wonder, “You and I are the only ones since God to see what is inside that tree”. There is a true connection to the universe in that statement and to the intrinsic qualities of materials.

As Len’s practice developed, he strove to make beauty and function interchangeable in furniture and objects as art for everyday life. Art as he saw it at the time meant good proportions, pleasing form and thoughtful use of materials. He studied contemporary woodworkers to learn technique and discover style. He became fascinated with the lathe and spent two full years just turning wood bowls both functional andartistic, selling at art shows and galleries. While turning, Len discovered a freedom of self-expression that confirmed in him the latent desire to be more than a cabinet maker. Art and artist were incubating.

Len eventually sold his shop in Asheville and moved to Washington state. In the town of Port Townsend, Len became immersed in boat building. He made repairs to fishing boats and crafted components for luxury yachts and cruisers that challenged his already extensive knowledge of wood and its properties. “We tortured a lot of wood into amazing shapes”, he says. It was a completely new exposure to art, design, building and performance.

After ten years on the West coast, the urge to get a degree in Biology once again possessed Len. He had fallen hopelessly in love and with support from his new wife, he pursued graduate studies in Environmental Science at Washington State University focusing on endangered species management. At the same time his wife earned a BFA in studio practice and art history which opened him to the more formal side of the art world. This period included two years in the United State Peace Corps.

Through the excitement of all the new experiences, Len’s irrepressible urge to make things kept bubbling underneath. He picked up a tool here and there, and soon had another shop going. During this time he delved deeply into furniture making which grew into the expression of his concepts and designs. One of his customers remarked that his furniture was a quiet mix of modern, oriental and personal styles.

While nearing the completion of his doctorate, Len conceived his first sculpture. He put some chunksof wood into the back of his truck and started working out an idea while doing his field research. These first sculptural pieces were a group of forms meant to represent buds coming out the ground in the spring in a celebration of life. As he pondered them, they began to take on the appearance of human figures, pre-historic forms emerging out of the primeval. The discovery surprised and satisfied him in an unexpected way. Len acknowledged that the urge to be an artist was a strong part of his make-up and was at least equal to any other desire. Len also realized that he had found a new language, a new method of self expression, and with it another way of probing the universe and getting at those pesky questions about origins.

Upon his graduation, the US economy was in steep recession from the housing crisis. Len’s degrees did not produce a job and he found himself once again on his own. Always the active maker, he began the next leg of his journey in his own shop, this time a dedicated studio practice, where Len reinvented himself as a full-time artist.

Without a conscious effort his work settled into the creation of abstract figures. His sculptures became reminiscent of ancient beings as he began to work within a philosophical framework he calls The Ancestors. They take various forms, but the viewer will notice that the figures seldom have facial features because he does not want them to exhibit personality. They are meant to represent a universal and cosmic humanity, an “Us” in some essential form.

With his wife as an art teacher and mentor, and as he pondered his own history as a craftsman, Len realized that his earliest influence was the architecture of old New England where he was raised and around which he lived. That architecture and its aesthetic have deeply informed the structural nature of his work and his desire for pleasing lines that resolve into a sense of harmony.

Although Len spent most of his working life in solo, he also learned that he was part of a lineage of making that included both architecture and art. His mother’s family were quarry workers and artisans that came over from Italy in the 1800’s to work the granites of New England. And he recently discovered to his delight that his great grandfather was a respected granite sculptor.

Artistic influences in the development of Len’s aesthetic are Brancusi and von Rydingsvard. Constantin Brancusi is significant to him because of his tireless effort to describe the essence of a subject without embellishment. Len’s drive to find the power in a form through its simplification finds grounding here. An equally important and inspiring influence is Ursula von Rydingsvard. Her body of work helps him to think more expansively both in time, because of the way she incorporates personal and cultural history into her work, and in space due to the massive nature and settings of her outdoor sculpture. In honoring these influences, Len’s process involves the continual refinement of form, only complete for him when a piece stirs deep memory and holds more absorbing emotion than it bears resemblance to any physical reality.

Len’s aesthetic grows out of the diversity of his education, experience and thinking while his years of development in the practical arts is a gateway to problem solving in the studio. Daily studio practice involves a work ethic that is cognizant of the effort required when experimenting, failing, rethinking and always learning.

Len’s practice has expanded from an early focus with wood into stone carving and metal working. He especially loves combining materials. Materials are alive to him. Each piece of stone and wood has its own movement through time that connects it to the history of the planet. And steel, although a processed material, is made from iron which is at the core of the earth itself. He states, “I am constantly reminded by the nature of the materials with which I work and by the imaginings of my own mind, of the powerful forces that shape us, our planet and the cosmos”.

His methodology is the selection and rearrangement of materials. Len says that materials have their own voice which informs any given piece. He works in a dialogue with material, a merging of material and idea, where its voice and his voice must be translated into a new entity, the sculpture. There are two principal approaches to sculpture, subtractive and additive. It is subtractive when carving and additive when constructing. The two techniques allow for different kinds of relationship to theme and material.

Materials are handled with a mix of reverence and the physical force required for their transformation, placing an equal value on both the human touch and the material. It is no small challenge because each original piece is hand made in an interactive mode wherein mastery of materials involves sensing their essential qualities as much as knowing how to shape them. The quality of the finishes he achieves, developed over several years of furniture making impart a luster coupled with a softness that begs to be touched. Len wants his viewers to have a fully sensual experience with his work, to feel the forms and the surface qualities that are the more subjective values of his sculpture.

Len is inspired by the rock art of the American southwest where he travels periodically to become mesmerized by the expressions of the ancient ones who inhabited this continent. He is a lifelong student of the cave and rock art of Europe and Africa. How this ancient art was made is fascinating enough, but for Len, why it was made is even more significant. The shamanic aspects of the art and the transformational realities it represents influence him at a deep personal level. These artists though far removed in time represent the long human journey and how they expressed the relationship between inner and outer worlds.

As Len became immersed in the conceptual nature of The Ancestors, he discovered a new ecology, one that encompasses the universe, an ecology of matter, energy and consciousness that goes back to the Big Bang. Len investigates this ecology through the creative process of carving which engages his whole being, and through personal studies in quantum physics and metaphysics. Len puts it this way: “The history of consciousness is embedded in the universe in the same way that the history of matter is encoded in the signature of the Big Bang”.

Len is using art to look back into human history and forward into human possibility. Because we are an integral part of the universe, some comprehension of its reality must be accessible to us. The questions he poses to himself every day in the studio are about how consciousness expresses itself and how the life force interacts with both energy and matter.     Len asks, “Is it possible that the cosmos is self-conscious through us?”

Len’s representations of ancestors, shamans and other beings call attention to the knowledge and memory of the larger human family and to the unseen dimensions of reality often forgotten, misunderstood or obscured by the demands of daily life. Len’s sculpture reminds people of the broadness of the human presence in the world and that our history is interwoven with the larger history of the cosmos itself.  

Len continues to make, ponder and transform in his home in California, aided and abetted by five cats and the love of his life.


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