Bronze in motion
Lake Placid sculptor, painter has rare retrospective show at Tupper Arts this month
TUPPER LAKE — The muscles on a cougar ripple as it prowls, leaning hungrily over a ledge, preparing to chase down a snowshoe hare in the Tupper Arts gallery.
This large, life-size cat — and the hare making its hasty getaway — are two of the bronze sculptures Lake Placid sculptor and painter PJ LaBarge has displayed at the arts center this month.
LaBarge said she loves movement. Her pieces do not feel static. They are filled with muscle, tension and action, what she calls “the brink of motion.”
LaBarge comes about her focus on movement through an anatomical and physiological view. She has a master’s degree in kinesiology and biomechanics. She studied to be a doctor, learning about the body and movement. She worked with athletes and did cadaver anatomy.
Movement is all about science and mathematics to her, which she blends into her art to create emotion and tell stories. She said she treats each sculpture as having a particular personality.
Each animal has a story, one that lives in her own head. She’s put a couple of these to paper for this exhibit.
She’s spent hours observing these animals in the wild, whether it is watching the otters play off her dock on Lake Placid or on safaris in Africa. She said she analyzes movement — its function and form — and uses proportions and mathematics to bring them to life.
Marsha Stanley, who was at the exhibit opening on Thursday, said she first saw LaBarge sculpting at the Lake Placid Lodge. Stanley lives on Panther Mountain Road, so she has one of LaBarge’s panthers at the entrance to her home.
She said the big cat is so life-like, her dogs were afraid of it at first. They wouldn’t go near it. Eventually, one worked up enough nerve to go sniff it.
The exhibit is called “The Elusive Wild” because of the rare animals and rare moments LaBarge captures in her work.
Her work can be seen at several Adirondack camps. They usually sell for thousands of dollars, but at Tupper Arts this month, they can be seen all in one place for free.
Welcome to the jungle
LaBarge was introduced into the art world through a series of serendipitous meetings. Or rather, she introduced herself, taking several risks along the way.
She grew up in Tupper Lake but moved to California. After deciding to not pursue a doctorate, she entered a medical marketing career and learned that she liked design.
Then, one day, she saw an article about a mountain lion preservation organization in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her interest was piqued and she wanted to design a jewelry collection for them. She reached out and they said they were looking for exactly that. The only problem was that now she had a $10,000 order before she even knew how to make jewelry.
She picked it up fast and began working with numerous wildlife preservation organizations.
LaBarge never thought she’d return to the Adirondacks, but she’s been back, living in Lake Placid, for 18 years. At first, she would spend seasons here, having worked out a living arrangement with the Lake Placid Lodge.
For years, LaBarge could be seen sitting on the front porch or at the bar at the Lake Placid Lodge, immersed in her work. She said sculpting in public was a unique experience. It was performative instead of reclusive. This works well for her, she said — she’s approachable and friendly.
Locals could see her visions develop over time. Guests saw just snippets — a moment in the lengthy artistic process. The Lodge became her gallery. But she lost everything when the historic building caught fire and burned down in 2005.
Her bronze sculptures near the center of the fire melted and were scarred. She keeps a couple of these marred sculptures in her yard. The wing of a man in her sculpture “Introspection” melted off. In hindsight, this is “interesting,” she said, but at the time it was not.
LaBarge loves all animals, with a special passion for cats. She loves sculpting and painting big cats, but her first feline fascination was a “little guy.” She was 27 and hadn’t planned on owning a cat. But she went into a pet store and saw this small cat who didn’t look happy there.
“This little guy looked at me like, ‘Get me the frick out of here,'” LaBarge said.
She talked her roommate into sneaking the cat into their apartment. The cat was named Bjorn after the tennis star Bjorn Borg, who had just won Wimbledon singles championship five successive times.
Fittingly, Bjorn the cat was a “super-athlete,” LaBarge said. She’d watch him jump from the floor to the top of the fridge in one bound.
“He’s magnificent,” she said. She got obsessed.
Bjorn is the subject of one sculpture which she’s never cast, LaBarge said. This clay sculpture needs some work, after her other cat, Stutzy, left claw marks across it, walking on the fine art to chase a feather.
“It sat there for like, 24 years, without having a problem and this cat comes along and walks on it, like ‘Oh, there’s a good stepping stone,'” LaBarge said.
She said she plans to repair and cast Bjorn.
Lions and tigers and bears
These pieces display her sense of humor, too, LaBarge said. An otter is distracted by the search for a mate by the flash of a rainbow trout. Two bears flee the wrath of a bee colony angry at the attempted poaching of their honey.
“So much of the art in the Adirondacks is so serious … moody,” LaBarge said.
She said she finds humor in nature. Animals learn by playing, she said, and their antics display an intelligence she likens to Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons.
They’re not human, but they have personality. This is the basis of the message she feels her pieces convey.
“I think that awareness, it gives you a little more humanity about things instead of being callous,” LaBarge said. “Wildlife is so essential to our planet. It’s in balance. We are not. They are. Every creature, every insect, has a job.”
LaBarge started painting during the coronavirus pandemic because casting in bronze became very difficult. She already would sketch out her visions before sculpting, but found painting to be a faster outlet for getting those images out of her head, onto the page.
“It’s just the way my brain goes. I have pictures, movies, going all the time,” LaBarge said. “It’s like a movie in there.”
After sketching, she sets to work on with wire, building a skeletal structure. Then, she sculpts in clay, building muscle. Finally, the piece is cast in bronze, giving its coat a shine.
“The Elusive Wild” will be at Tupper Arts through the end of August. The free public gallery is open from seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.