Sunday, October 30, 2016

It has been over 20 years since I opened my studio in Utah. In this entry I decided to revisit that time and the events that got me set up to create in a space ideal for sculpture.

Going through school, learning art, the challenge of creating good works and the whys and what fors are so big that usually little time is spent on the how.  How to become an artist and create a living out of it...  My teacher, Jan Fisher, gave me a look into how to vie for a commission, how to present myself to a gallery, but what happens when you graduate?  How do you get set up?
The sun was shining on me the day I opened my studio
I came to Utah with my young family with hopes of becoming a professional artist.  We first lived in a three bedroom apartment, one of the rooms being devoted to my work space.  While it was good to have my own area, it was not much more than a hobby room.  How could I bring in potential clients to my extra bedroom?  What if I wanted to get a big commission, where would I make it?  So after 8 months of this set up I was determined to get a proper studio. But how? I had no money, only enough for the bills and the support of our young family. I was 30 with a part-time job of $5 an hour at a local bronze art foundry. The job was by design so I could learn more about bronze casting, mold making and welding. It was a great education.

Craig Hone, a wood carver, sculpts a bust of my brother-in-law
 Ben Baker. Notice the sturdy kid’s desks I used to make 
sculpture stands.

I did not have any money but I did have some things going for me. I had a great desire, I had my wits and intelligence and I had good skills at teaching having just come from New Zealand where for 18 months I taught art, at the school Te Wananga O Aotearoa. With this, I hatched a plan to have my own office warehouse space.  In short, I would teach classes and use the money to pay the rent and utilities. came up with an elaborate plan where I would have classes, beginning sculpture, advanced sculpture, kids classes and mold making classes. There was a catch 22, I had to have a space to teach in, and to sign people up I had to show I had a place to teach. I looked around for a space and really liked a strip of office warehouses, not too far from our apartment. In my mind I was there, I already had the place. Even though I never looked inside, never enquired how much it cost to rent, it didn't matter, that’s where I wanted to be. To have the space and freedom to sculpt big on a cement floor, high ceiling and room to step back, to display my work and have clients, people of influence, come in and show them my place without shame, to look like I was legitimate, that was my goal.

It was early April, I came up with a date, June 20, 1996. That was going to be the day my classes one of those warehouses. I had another deadline, May 20th, that was the deadline that people would have to meet if they wanted to take the class. They would have to send in a $50 (of the $150 total fees) deposit to reserve their spot. Before this deadline I set up a post office box for customers to send their mail and used my home phone as the contact number. I got caller id, a new feature to phones back then, so I could see who was calling. I went all over town putting up fliers on notice boards for the class. I told friends, fellow sculptors and placed two ads in the newspaper. I sat at home waiting for phone calls. If a call came through with a number I didn't know, I would bark to my rambling little kids to "shush you kids-be quiet right now!" and take the call with a cheery "hello Transfield Studios! You’re calling about the what?  Oh, yes, the sculpture class!" I would then describe the class, that I was in the process of moving my studio and tell them my studio was a warehouse office space near the freeway in Provo.

As May 20th approached, my responses seemed promising but the numbers did not look good. I calculated that I needed to have 15 people signed up by May 20 or I would cancel the classes and return the money. When the day approached I was so nervous. But when the actual day came there were letters in my box! I counted them all up, 14 total. I knew there were others who were seriously thinking of signing up so I gave myself the green light, it was time to act!

I went over to the warehouse strip, found out who the owner was and asked him if there was a vacant space I could rent. He said no but an occupant was thinking of moving. If they agreed to move out, I could move there. In a couple of days he came back to me and said yes, you can move there. I was so excited that day. I can remember taking my wife over there for a tour of the inside. It had a big roller door, glass door and window for the office, a large bathroom and a big loft for storage. In all it was 1000 square foot.  My wife later asked the 65 year old owner of the place, Jack Hopkinson,  who granted renting me the space, “Why did you rent to LeRoy when he had no credit or record or way of knowing he was going to pay rent?"  His simple reply was, "He had an honest face." Despite all the struggles and challenges, I paid rent there, never behind, for 4 years.
A student surrounded by make shift shelves,  sculpture stands
 and my loft.

My next task was to fill the space. I had three weeks to do it. I went to second hand stores, got scrap wood from construction sites and free stuff on the side of the road. I bought a hammer, drill, screws and nails and built shelves, sculpture stands and whatever else I needed. I had lettering made for the window. It said Transfield Sculpture Studios. In honor of Te Wananga O Aotearoa, I put the words 'Te Kura Toi’ which is Maori for The School of Art, the program I set up before I left New Zealand. When the first day of class rolled around, with all the fixtures and furniture, I looked liked I had been there for a while. 

The view from the interior of my office.  There were many a day 
would look out the window and think of how much I 
loved my little family and, despite all the challenges of 
keeping my studio, think of what a wonderful world we lived in.

They were exciting times. I can remember saying to myself, I'm going to be a successful, famous sculptor. I have the determination, intelligence and perseverance to do it and now I have the space. It sounded good at the time. Little did I know the exact price that would take. The suffering that would take place just to make a run at it. I wouldn't have been so bold if I could have seen exactly what it took. I was hardly known, not that developed in my skills, in a foreign land with no money. Good thing I was naive!

The opening of my first class turned into a real success. The beginning class was full, the advanced class had enough people to make it worth while. I had a place now and it was now my task to gain a better footing and generate sales and commissions so I could stay there. The first few months in the warehouse were very touch and go. For at least 18 months I began the month not knowing how I was going to get the money to pay the bills for the end of the month. It was pressure packed, yet I loved it. I can remember after being there for over a year and thinking to myself, if all this fails and I have to close down and get a job, this will have been the greatest most rewarding time in my life. For it to work it did require all my courage and creativity beyond what I ever thought I was capable of.  


  1. Loved reading this Leroy! You need to write more. God bless you, brother!

  2. Thanks Nnamdi, it’s cool that you were there too, at the foundry and at my studio and even taught a class there!

  3. My bro, my initial reaction in meeting you was that I found you to be a curious individual and it was that curiosity that drew me instantly to you. As I got to know you more I knew in my heart that you were a good man, a person that I needed to be around in the hope that your genuineness would rub off on me. Every memory that I have of you are ones of smiles, laughter, and acts of love, that is something that many people cannot say a lot of and I knew that I had found a someone I considered, a good friend.
    As I read your beginnings of "Transfield Sculpture Studios-Te Kura Toi", I couldn't help but shed tears as you explained what was involved in it's development, the tears were because of your struggles and of not having much family with you, but then in all you said, you never gave up and your focus was strengthened because of your self-belief, your desire, wits, belief and skills. Looking out your office window and prioritising life, the love you have for your family, and despite the hardships recognising that there is indeed beauty all around.
    I'm so happy for the determination that you have to succeed in your pursuit of happiness, and for what it's worth, you continue to remain an inspiration to me. I love you my bro and always want you to know that.

    Dave Winitana...Arohanui.

  4. I enjoy seeing your work on Instagram, and I truly appreciate you sharing your story here.