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Artists' Studio Visits at Biddington's Art Gallery

Tom Duncan sculpture Coney Island

Narrative Polychrome Sculpture

CREATIVE PROCESS visits the Greenwich Village (New York City) studio of mixed-media, construction artist Tom Duncan.

Editor's Note: At first glance, Tom Duncan's sculpture--with its specific autobiographical detail--feels overwhelmingly personal. In time, greater themes--the indelible imprint of war, religion and Pop culture on childhood memory--surface in Duncan's intense, complex work.

DUNCAN: Recalling memories is like building a bridge: one leads to another. People assume that the past comes back easily to me, but that's not true. Remembering in detail takes work.

Coney Island
Large-Scale Kinetic Sculpture
with Lights, Trains and Moving Carnival Rides

Tom Duncan detail from wwII sculpture

DUNCAN: I started making sculpture as a small child when my aunt gave me my first clay set and made a clay figure. She then clothed the figure with brown paper and attached it with a string. I was AMAZED. My aunt didn't have any particular skill, but I couldn't have been more impressed if it had been Michelangelo showing me how to carve marble.

Detail from Brandy Strafing
Mixed-media Polychrome Sculpture
Based on a World War II Incident In Scotland

Tom Duncan Mickey Mouse gas mask

DUNCAN: I was born in Scotland at the start of World War II; growing up I wasn't aware that anything was wrong. If I had been born in peacetime maybe I would have noticed a difference. When I went to school my history lessons just confirmed that war was a natural phenomenon. My family situation was not a happy one, so I didn't feel safe in the house, and I couldn't play outside with German planes flying and bombing. I did my art because it was a safe place.

Mickey Mouse Gas Mask
Detail from Mixed-media Sculpture
Brandy Strafing

Tom Duncan sculpture Mad Dog

DUNCAN: There were plenty of women and children but very few men in my village. One group of men I did see were German prisoners of war--mostly shot down Luftwaffe pilots and sailors who had survived the North Sea. They were scary--not because they were the enemy--but because of their long red beards. I was more familiar with the German prisoners than with the men in my own family.

Wild Dog in a Bomb Shelter
Lighted Mixed-media Wall Sculpture

DUNCAN: This piece is about my mother and brother and I in our bomb shelter in our back garden. The floor was dirt. There was no water or electricity--just a cistern in the corner to be used as a toilet. It was damp and cold and dark in there--the air raids were at night. A wild dog has just stuck his head in the bomb shelter doorway and is barking and a German bomber is crashing down in flames in our garden. I have included a flashlight and my Mickey Mouse gas mask, my mother's gas mask, one of my comic books, my gollywog and my toy machine gun. I've also included our guardian angels and devils. The soldier on the horse at the bottom of the piece is a figure of my father who was away fighting in the British cavalry. To this day, whenever I go outside, the first thing I do is check the sky for planes--it is instinctive and unconscious.

DUNCAN: After the War, in 1948, we moved from Scotland to New York City. Some of my work is about leaving Scotland and coming to America.

Tom Duncan etching Space Console

DUNCAN: In America, my cousin Vincent (who was a Jesuit scientist) introduced me to dinosaurs and to Buck Rogers. We would make tyrannosaurus rexes, mammoths and cavemen one day out in the vacant lots in the Bronx and the next day be flying our space ships to the moon.

Vincent and I Playing with Space Console
Hand-colored Engraving

Tom Duncan sculpture Pan-at-lee

DUNCAN: And I loved going to the movies on Saturday morning--I must have seen every science fiction and adventure movie made in the 50's. This sculpture is about a Tarzan character: Princess Pan-at-lee of Pal-ul-don.

Detail of Princess Pan-at-lee Gets Dressed
Small Mixed-media Wall Sculpture

Tom Duncan detail of sculpture Coney Island DUNCAN: When I was a teenager I went to Coney Island a lot. I was overwhelmed by the Freak Shows, Waxworks and Haunted House rides--the whole carnival atmosphere. A dead whale once washed up on shore. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck for everyone to look at--you could smell it before you got off the subway. The thing that impressed me the most was that they had cut out its heart and put it in a red box with glass sides and exhibited it next to the whale.

Switch detail from "Coney Island"

DUNCAN: When I started constructing large sculptures, I often didn't quite know how to conceptualize the piece. So, I spent a lot of time figuring out what was possible. Now I know that almost anything can be realized. It's a lot of fun to do much of the process in my head; I spend hours just thinking through ideas and concepts.

Editor's note: Tom Duncan still puts many of his preliminary thoughts down on paper. Click here to view some of Tom Duncan's process notes for making one sculpture. Please note: the page includes some images of sketchbooks and models that are slow to download.

Tom Duncan construction Magic Drummer

DUNCAN: Because so many of the images come from the pop culture of my childhood, viewers sometimes don't realize how much the history and the study of art has influenced my sculpture. My constructions from the 1970's like this one Magic Drummer relate to Joseph Cornell's boxes.

Magic Drummer
Box Construction Wall Sculpture 1973

Tom Duncan clay figures for Migraine

Clay figure studies for top of Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache

DUNCAN: My overall approach to composition is classical--the top of "Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache " has figures that seem like ancient river gods and has good versus evil sides. I frequently go up to The Cloisters to look at reliquaries and other religious objects.

Tom Duncan engraving Magic Trick DUNCAN: My work is always about story-telling--about my childhood and sometimes about more recent memories. Some viewers find my work comic and fun and others find it tragic and painful; to me, it's both. A fantasy world has always been my main interest and expressing it through my sculpture has always been my main concern.

Magic Trick
Hand-colored Engraving

Tom Duncan

Tom Duncan
in His Studio with a Work-in-Progress
"Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache"


CREATIVE PROCESS at Biddington's is designed as a forum for watching art in the making. Usually, this process happens in the privacy of the artist's studio. At BIDDINGTON'S Contemporary Art Gallery & upmarket, online art & antiques auction--we find it interesting to witness the steps leading to the end product and to hear the artists speak about their work in the relaxed surroundings of their own studios.

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