Talons extended, the eagle’s powerful wings powerfully backstroke through the air as it swoops in for a landing. The great heron’s wing feathers flare as it readies itself for flight. And the sly eye of the camel examines the viewer as if looking for the most tender spot from which to take a malicious bite.
Sculptor Pat Payne has been capturing such ephemeral moments for over 25 years in the most durable of mediums: steel. Payne creates large metal sculptures of raptors such as eagles and condors, large birds such as herons and land animals such as rhinos and camels.
As a child, Payne painted with her mother, who was also an artist. Then she studied art at the University of Maryland extension program in Europe, the California College of Arts & Crafts, San Francisco Academy of Art and the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Yet Payne did not find her niche until she discovered steel as a medium.
Payne’s work has been exhibited all across the nation in galleries, art festivals and museums, including Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum. Many of her pieces, which feature endangered animals such as the condor, grace public spaces such as Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek and One Market Street in San Francisco as well as private collections.
Payne took a short break from her studio, where she was busily preparing for an upcoming exhibition, to talk about her work as a sculptor.
How did you express yourself artistically as a child? When I was quite small — maybe five years old — I used to make these little clay figures. They all had a lot of personality. Even then, I’d make a lot of animals. I’d run around the Presidio (which was still an active military base back then) and sell them to neighbors.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to be a sculptor? I moved to Alameda in the 1960s and into this Victorian. I was doing some restoration work and decided I wanted a steel fence in the front. So I went to the local high school to learn how to weld because they weren’t teaching that in art school in those days. I just wanted to learn how to put two pieces of metal together.
How practical of you. Yes, but when I saw what you could do structurally with steel, that was it. I said “I’m going that way!” I’ll learn on my own, which is good because you come up with your own way of doing things.
Wait a minute. I didn’t see a fence out front. No! It never got made, naturally. I got too busy.
There are some remarkable effects in your pieces — the movement of wings, the softness of feathers — that you achieve with such a hard, immovable medium. You can do almost anything with steel. It’s structurally stronger. You can’t really do the feathers in bronze because you have to pour the metal too thick. With steel, you can play with it. For the heads, I’ll heat them until they glow and hammer them.
How do you choose your subjects, such as the raptors? I just love the action of the birds. You can see condors around Ventana. They’re fascinating. They have all these little things to play with.
What is your process for creating a piece? I pretty much know what I want to do right away. I don’t do sketches or anything. It’s immediately right here, in my head. I can see it. I have an internal ability to balance the sculpture, which is a real asset. For instance, I’m working on this bird for the City of Los Gatos. I wanted to see how wide I could make the wings and balance it. I build it and I know that it will stand right even if it’s just on one foot.
Do you often go out and observe wildlife? When I can. Absolutely. I really would like to see the condors closer. Sometimes, I’ll pull up pictures of them to see the construction of them. Or I will get a replica skull to look at.
Where do you get bird skulls? There’s an outfit called Skulls Unlimited. It’s a great teaching resource. You can get actual skulls if there are enough out there. Or exact replicas if you’re working on an endangered bird. Once you know the bone structure underneath, you know where you’re going. So, for example, here’s an eagle skull. See how the eyeballs take up almost the entire skull? They must have absolutely tiny brains. If you don’t know that, you’re going to miss something.