Published in The Charlotte Observer Friday, July 31, 1998

Visions of childhood, stilled

Sculptor Cantey Gannaway captures youth in all its glorious innocence

By JANE GRAU Columnist

Cantey Tomlinson Gannaway, whose portrait sculptures are on exhibit in Watkins Gallery at Queens College, was a psychologist before she toured a sculpture garden in Charleston and decided sculpting was what she wanted to do the rest of her life.

Up to that point, she had no formal training in art, especially not for hands and feet -- the hardest part of the human body to render, but which she thinks are ``fun.'' Nor for drapery, also tremendously difficult. And just a little for handling clay, her favorite medium.

Not necessary with talents like hers.

After falling in love with the garden sculpture, Gannaway enrolled in a portrait sculpture class at Queens College. Then another and another. The classes served merely to hone her innate skills. Now she has her own students.

Gannaway's specialty is children in ``relaxed, casual poses, being themselves,'' which is exactly what parents want in portraiture. More than that, they want something that says to the world, ``Look what we produced -- a creature like no other!'' But the prime requisite for children's portraits is that they capture forever the unblemished innocence of childhood.

In every instance, Gannaway succeeds admirably as a portraitist. It is to her credit that she doesn't cross the line into sentimentality and nostalgia. Her children sit cross-legged or atop a stool, comfortable in sneakers and overalls. They're sometimes pensive, sometimes reading or playing. But in each case, they are the essence of simplicity, the better to let their individuality shine through.

This simplicity belies the intense scrutiny required for discerning the details and nuances that make each one unique. Like psychology, Gannaway's sculpture is a natural offshoot of a lifelong habit of observing people. She has an acute understanding of how both the human psyche and the human form are put together.

``There are millions of people in the world, each with two eyes, one nose, and one mouth,'' says Gannaway. ``My job is noticing the subtle distinctions that make them all different, and I about go crazy trying to do it. I study every aspect intently, including the backs of knees and armpits, and work as hard to get a shoulder right as I do the face -- they're both important in getting a likeness.''

In one piece, she worked extra hard to make the sitter's second toe turn away from her big toe, a quirk she'd inherited from her father.

In a portrait, the face is the focal point. Other parts do two things: direct the viewer's eye to that focal point and contribute to the overall character of the sitter -- without detracting from either. Same goes for body posture: It must be expressive but not distracting.

A figure in space must be properly weighted and balanced so we believe it is subject to the same forces of gravity as a real body. I am particularly taken with the piece titled ``Helen,'' where a willow switch of a young woman, obviously absorbed in her violin playing, almost imperceptibly shifts her weight onto one delicate foot.

Gannaway's expertise with drapery is best shown in the skirt of a garden piece, ``Robbie.'' Although the fabric has substance, it subtly serves to feminize and define the figure beneath it. Should Robbie come to life -- which all great figure sculpture promises to do -- the skirt will move accordingly, keeping the child's limbs and spirit running free.

Especially masterful is the way Gannaway left space between the strap of the girl's pinafore and her shoulder, the better to emphasize the curve of the joint and the softness of the skin.

In the bust of ``Brown,'' a plain shirt collar gently frames the head to prevent it from looking like it's been bluntly cut off, while ``Helen's'' long skirt moves the eye fluidly and directly to where her arms bend gracefully to cradle the violin.


WHAT:Cantey Gannaway's portrait sculptures.
WHERE: Watkins Art Gallery at Queens College, 1900 Selwyn Ave.
WHEN: Through Aug. 23. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
DETAILS: 337-2286, gallery hours.