Nov/Dec 2021 edition
Issue #15 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
Interview of Stanley Wanlass by Jeff Zurschmeide
Photos by Stanley Wanlass
Stanley Wanlass might fairly be called a Renaissance man. He’s an automotive sculptor, which is why we’re here, but he has also been a professor at the European Art Academy in Paris and at the Université de Grenoble. He is a renowned sculptor of heroic historical monuments. On top of all that, he’s a writer and a painter, he went to medical school, and he designed the well-known Wanlass aerodynamic windshield for vintage ’32 Ford hot rods. Wanlass is, as the saying goes, a man for all seasons.
Even with all that, Wanlass is best known for his ultra-detailed automotive sculptures. While he has worked in stone and other materials, Stan found his muse working in Bronze with the lost wax process. That muse has given him a career that has seen his work displayed in museums around the world and even in the White House. The lost-wax process allows him to create limited editions of his sculptures, which makes them more accessible to the collector community.
We sat down with him for a chat about automotive sculpture in particular, but we soon discovered that his automotive art is inextricably connected to everything else.
Jeff Zurschmeide (JZ): Your background and your artworks are more varied than most artists. How did you land in this career?
Stanley Wanlass (SW): When I was at the university in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it was almost impossible to make a living as an artist. So in order to make a living, I went into my second interest at the time, which was medicine. When I went into medicine, and then through art, philosophy, and history, I learned not only about aesthetics but insights as to how people thought; their dignity, and their failings. Sometimes the best way to your goal is not a straight line. So much more can be learned following a diagonal or a zig-zag line. The study of anatomy and other areas of medicine made me a better artist and a broader human being. Also, to this day, I am creatively inspired by my studies of literature and music.
JZ: How does all of that come together and inform your work?
SW: My love for the automobile and for history has been paramount in my life and led to my passion for creating historical monuments, automotive sculpture, and paintings. I’ve always loved cars. I have built them and collected them all of my life. They are kinetic, and to me, they symbolize the ultimate expression of human freedom. The automobile was the only really new significant art form of the 20th century.
JZ: Tell me the story of the Christmas sculpture, Santa’s New Toy. Is that a particular make and model he’s driving?
SW: I’ve always imagined Santa in an early car. The design is similar to an early Mors or Renault, but numerous cars from 1901 to about 1906 used that scuttle-nose design. It’s just out of my imagination, but it’s what I imagined Santa would choose.
JZ: The detailed work on the sculpture is amazing. How did you develop all that?
SW: To stay true to the period, I researched the toys that were available in antique catalogs, and there were hundreds of different toys available. I had to purchase some so I could see them and feel them and then sculpt them. So, it seemed only natural to use Rudolph with a red nose as a hood ornament! The list in Santa’s hand has the good kids on one side and the bad kids on the other. I’d sometimes put the purchaser’s name at the top of the good list. I always try to personalize things when I can, and I hide a lot of “raisins in the cookie.” If people will involve themselves in the piece, they’ll find those raisins. I put them in all my bronzes.
Featured on this issue’s cover of AutoMobilia Resource magazine is “Santa’s New Toy.” A 28" long bronze on Carrara marble/metal base which was released in 1988 as an edition of 88. In December of 1988, Regis & Kathie Lee introduced this incredible hand-painted sculpture on their annual ABC TV Christmas show. It was on its way to the White House for the unveiling of the National Christmas Tree at President Ronald Reagan’s request!
JZ: The base for the sculpture is impressive. What is it made of?
SW: The base is made of Carrara marble. I wanted it white like snow. It comes from the same quarry that Michelangelo’s “David” was carved from. I only wanted the best for this sculpture. Periodically, a marble base would break in shipment, so I now have the marble slabs sandwiched with sheets of bronze and silver muntz alloy, mounted on a turntable.
JZ: How did your sculpture end up at the White House?!?
SW: Two or three people called me, and one was the the official “Santa” for the White House. He said President Reagan had requested this sculpture. I told him there was one that was on display in New York, and he could use that one. We presented it on the Regis & Kathie Lee show. They had it on display for all of the Christmas celebrations that year.
JZ: You made Santa’s New Toy as a limited edition in 1988. Are there any examples left for sale?
SW: Yes, I still have about seven or eight. There are a crazy number of Santa collectors out there, and also automotive collectors, so I made 88 of these, to match the year in which the edition started. (1988). They are available for $87,500.
JZ: How many examples do you normally make for a given sculpture in an edition?
SW: I have some that are editions of 10, 18, 30, 40, and 55 for James Dean. Some artists make 500 or 5,000 or even 25,000 copies in their limited editions, which is just silly and cheapens the art.
JZ: Do you have a favorite automotive piece you’ve made?
SW: I have favorites in certain areas, but it’s like choosing your kids; I couldn’t say. But, I love “The Wasp” because it represents the beginning of racing in America. I love “Pur Sang” because women are beautiful and cars are beautiful, but you put them together and it becomes more than the sum of the parts. And I love the “New York-to-Paris” piece because of its historic value. If I had to choose, I think “New York to Paris” is most precious to me.
JZ: Is there a proudest or best moment in your career that stands out for you?
SW: Probably it was when Peter Helck, who is worshipped by every automotive artist, gave me accolades. He wrote about the artist Walter Appleton Clark, who died at age 30, and said, “Had he lived… the rest of us automotive artists would look like amateurs. That is, excepting Wanlass.” That affected me more than anything I can remember.
JZ: Reading things you’ve written and said before, you mention that you often take some artistic license with strict facts in favor of truth. What does that really mean, and what truth do you get out of it?
SW: For example, in one of my Lewis and Clark monuments, I show Lewis and Clark together at the ocean. In reality, they were never together on the beach. But reaching the ocean was the spiritual climax of their journey together. To me, that’s truth. Here’s another example: the 500K Mercedes is one of the most beautiful automobiles ever made. It’s great viewed at a human height, but if you get up on a ladder and look down on it, it looks like a fat toad. There are a lot of cars that are meant to be seen from one angle, but my sculptures cannot only be seen from human height because they’re smaller. So I’m responsible for every angle and direction. I know everything about the car’s dimensions mathematically, but I have to change what’s there in order to give the spirit of what it is to the viewer. Sometimes I have to make it longer, less wide, and sometimes I’ll change the ellipse of the wheels a little.
JZ: Your historic sculptures are quite a different direction from your automotive art. Do you think one style informs the other?
SW: Very much so. To me, the more arrows I can have in my quiver, the better prepared I am to make a statement. It’s a subjective statement, to be sure, but it’s my statement. Of all the 900 billion people who have lived, no two are the same, so it’s crazy to try to compete with other people, other artists. You just have to build on your experience and what is precious to you and what you have a passion for. If you can do that, no one else can compete with you, and you can’t compete with anyone else. Make statements that speak the truth and that are important to you.
JZ: Do you take commissions? If so, how would one go about commissioning a piece?
SW: I used to do commissions, but I found out that unless it was something I really wanted to do, it tended towards mediocrity. I was sculpting somebody else’s dream. If it was something I was interested in, I’d do it, but if I couldn’t get a feeling for it, I’d pass on it. I’ve tried to make the statements I wanted to make. If people like them they can buy them. If they don’t, then there are other artists around who might meet their needs. This doesn’t mean I don’t take commissions; I do if they work for me.
JZ: Is there a place someone could view all your works?
SW: There are a lot of one-off pieces and commissions that are lost to history, but most of the sculptures and paintings I’ve created are shown on my website, StanleyWanlass.com. If someone is interested in a particular sculpture, they can contact me through the site.
JZ: What does the future hold for you?
SW: My eyes are not as good as they were. I don’t think I’m going to do any more small sculptures, so those are disappearing rapidly. I’m getting to be old, but I feel like I’m 25 and I’d like to continue to be able to work. I just need another 150 years to complete what I’m working on! But no one gets that; you have a certain amount of time allotted.
By any measure, Stanley Wanlass has used his time very well indeed.
[Editor’s note: Depending on the piece, and who and where a Wanlass sculpture is selling, the sold prices have ranged from low five figures to the mid-six figures. There are many variables.]
To read more great automotive art columns like this one from Automotive Art expert Jeff Zurschmeide...
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