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October 26, 2004   Email to Friend 

In The Master's Hands
Fran Sharp

Though Clydetta Fulmer's art qualifies her as a master sculptor, she gives God the glory for shaping her life into one that blesses others.
There's no guardian angel sitting on Clydetta Fulmer's shoulder. She is standing on the porch. The 6-foot-tall statue is a special work of the Montgomery artist and was one of few survivors of a fire that destroyed Clydetta's rural studio and many of her completed works as well as those in progress.

The studio was housed in a building built in 1916 by her great grandfather, Joel Davis. It was originally the Longview Church of Christ, but in the 1950s the congregation moved to a larger building. Over the years, the abandoned church served as a residence and even a hay barn before Clydetta converted it to a studio in 1980.

Then disaster struck. In 1991, the building was struck by lightning. A year after the fire, the studio was rebuilt with the help of Alfa Insurance. Clydetta's "guardian angel" was placed on the porch to remind her that she could and would persevere. "I came through that by faith," she said.

Clydetta's interest in art began in childhood, and she was blessed to come from a family who supported her artistic bent. Her grandmother, Eunice Renfro, painted; her preacher father, Clyde Fulmer, illustrated his sermons on a blackboard; her teacher mother, Constance Fulmer, encouraged and guided the development of her talent; and her two older sisters, Connie Fulmer and Eunice Fulmer Wells, appreciated her artwork.

Clydetta listens with her eyes and her heart as she creates with her hands. That is perhaps the secret of the wonderful moments in time she captures for families who commission her to create life-size images of their children and some of Alabama's most notable figures.

A member of the National Sculpture Society and American Artists Professional League as well as others, her work can be seen at the Montgomery County Courthouse, Oakwood Cemetery, Faulkner University and in many private collections.

Her first bronze, life-size work remains a favorite: Helen Keller as a child at the Library for the Blind.

"I've always been an admirer of Helen Keller," Clydetta said. "I portrayed her sitting on a stump reading a book. Two quotations in Braille read, 'It must surely be a brave world with such people in it,' and 'Let us not remember our troubles past since they have so happily ended.'

"Since it was to be a hands-on piece for the blind patrons of the library, I added a clump of violets at the base, a butterfly on the stump and rocks," she said. "Once, I called the library, and they said there's a tour of 40 blind children feeling your sculpture. That was very special for me."

Clydetta paints in oils, and sculpts in wood or clay, her largest creation being a 6-foot, 3-inch soldier, and her smallest a Nativity scene measuring 21 inches tall with a 1-inch Baby Jesus. She especially likes sculpting because it is mentally demanding as well as hard physical labor. She begins with a wooden armature, like a skeleton, so carpentry is involved, and the size and scope of her works require strength in working the clay as well as moving things around.

Sculpture comprises 90 percent of her work and her partiality is obvious in the light that comes to her bright blue eyes when she describes the process.

"Sculpture is interesting and challenging because I must look at something from every angle, rather than seeing the subject from just one view," she explains. "I believe everything we do is an expression of self and a reflection of one's character."

The work does not go fast. A life-size figure takes about six months in clay and another six months for the bronze casting. Work begins before the first lump of clay is readied. From the time she meets the commissioners of the work, preparation is extensive. Hundreds of photos are taken, including close-ups of hands and feet, and measurements are taken so the replica will be to size. "I can tell so much about people from the smallest thing observed about them, and I incorporate those observations into my work," she said.

In the case of children, she talks with the subject and the family about how they wish the child portrayed. "With children, these discussions can be lively," she noted. "Their innocence and honesty are part of the overall joy of sculpting children."

Some children produce drawings of how they want to be portrayed, others voice their opinions as they visit. "One little girl was careful to tell me, 'I want my foot to be just like this,' placing her foot just so on the ground," Clydetta recalled. "I love it when children tell me what they want and how they want to look. They are usually very good at communicating ideas to me."

She tells the story of one of singer-songwriter Amy Grant's children as one of her favorite "definite ideas" subjects. "This little four-year-old wanted ribbons in her hair and 10 butterflies. Ten! Her mother finally convinced her that just one butterfly would do to illustrate her love for the colorful creatures."

The commission to sculpt the Grant children came 30 years after one of Clydetta's first commissions when she met Ms. Grant's great-grandmother. She distinctly remembers being watched by an 8-year-old girl as she worked. Artist and subject kept in touch during the years and one day the grown up 8-year-old called to schedule a commission of her children. "I was honored, and they were delightful," Clydetta said.

Capturing a moment in time is what makes this art form so special, she says. "To have something to illustrate the beauty of joy and children is more satisfying for me to do it in sculpture rather than a painting over the fireplace. I'll use Amy as an example. She loves to go out into the garden and put her hands on the children's shoulders, and hold their little hands to remember when they were that age."

Clydetta devotes so much energy to the quality of her works that one might wonder how she knows when she's working on the subject's personality rather than her own.

Her reply? "An interesting question. The photos help me with expressions and characteristics, and then I draw on my own experiences and find a point of empathy or understanding. I know what it's like to go running across a lawn, or how it feels to settle in with a good book in a cozy place," she said.

She has no website, doesn't advertise and thinks of her talent and the commissions she receives as gifts from God. "Every one is an opportunity to serve the person who has commissioned me. I feel as if they have given me a sacred trust," she said. "My mission is to use my God-given artistic ability to glorify my Creator by creating works of art that reflect the beauty of His creation and to faithfully serve those who entrust me with the opportunity to develop their ideas into a lasting form."

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