Martha Sturdy was born in 1942 in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she has spent the extent of her life. This connection with the Pacific Northwest fostered the fundamental sensitivity towards the natural world, raw material explorations and formal expansiveness evident in her work. During her years at the Vancouver School of Art, now Emily Carr University, where she studied Sculpture, Sturdy began to examine the relationship between nature and the human form, developing an acuity for crafting wearable sculptures in steel, brass and silver influenced by the graphic strokes and constructions of Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, and Franz Kline.
Upon graduating in 1975, Sturdy was invited to present her work to Vera Wang, then Accessories Editor at Vogue. She was immediately embraced by the fashion world and established an editorial presence in magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Harpers under the patronage of influential image makers including Irving Penn, Francesco Scavullo, Candy Pratt Price, Herb Ritts, Gilles Bensimon, Tomas Schierlietz, and Rico Puhlmann. Alongside the bold constructions of Kenzo, Giorgio Armani, Krizia, and Gianfranco Ferre, her work reflected the heady power of the era, using outsized scale and bright minimalist shapes to punctuate the female silhouette.
Influenced by extensive travels in Asia and Africa, Sturdy’s play with nature and the body has expanded to large-scale sculpture, painting and design. In 1986, she established a studio in an industrial neighborhood of Vancouver, where she has since explored the properties of resin, brass, steel and wood, an ongoing process of research and creative expression that continues to result in iconic works of international acclaim. Her artwork and furniture has been exhibited at international embassies and private galleries, commissioned for public spaces, and shown by Donna Karan, Geoffrey Beene, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Perhaps Sturdy’s most profound achievement is a continuously evolving work of land art on her valley property in Pemberton. In this 250 acre expanse, Sturdy has cleared nature trails, hand-carved wooden horse jumps, and facilitated the movement of cougars and bears. It is here that she is both the influenced and the influencer, working in relentless collaboration with nature.
Gongshi are found rocks, typically limestone, chosen by Chinese scholars for their capacity to reflect natural and mythical worlds. Displayed in gardens or on specially carved rosewood stands, this ancient tradition defies the notion of the artist as all-powerful alchemist, forcing the natural world to bend to his ego. Rather the artist is of a piece with nature, a subjective discoverer alighting on moments where nature and human imagination are synthesized as one. The sculpture of Martha Sturdy shares this vital quality, serving as a bridge between the worlds of reality and experience, allowing materials, both natural and man-made, to retain their essence while opening toward representation.
The connection to ancient Gongshi is perhaps most clear in her works of charred cedar. Much like the Chinese scholar, the essential act of creation is one of discovery. Sturdy walks the woods of her bucolic property in the Coast Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, open to the possibility of aesthetic experience.
Uprighting the found cedar on simple steel stands, Sturdy brings the wood into relation with the human body. And by charring the wood, she recalls Shou Sugi Ban, an ancient preservation technique common to Japanese architecture. Through these simple, direct manipulations, the works become like spirits, suspended between their corporeality and the moment of their heavenly ascension.
Sturdy’s investigation of the human body as a metonym for the cycle of nature, from growth to decay, takes a twist with her works in sheet brass. Since Ancient Rome, lost-wax casting of brass and bronze has been a technique of choice for sculptural depictions of power, and Roman artisans, inspired by the Greeks, deified emperors and warriors by idealizing the human form. With the development of the rolling mill in the time of Leonardo, it became possible to produce sheet metal, providing artisans a perfectly idealized, abstract form from which to begin their work. Sturdy’s own curling and crinkling of the sheet brass allows it to retain its presence as raw abstract material, while simultaneously representing the corporeal truths of the human form, how it bends and curves, similar to the topography of the landscapes from which the ore was originally mined. Each of Sturdy’s expressive works conjures this dual representation of the union between nature and humanity.
Sturdy expands on this capacity of industrial material to embody the human relationship with the natural world in her works in steel and acid. Steel defines the twentieth century, having allowed cities to rise to the skies and ocean liners to globalize the world. Nonetheless, Sturdy finds within this most Modern and masculine material evocations of the transience of natural phenomena – frozen rivers, rumbling clouds. Using acid like Sumie ink, she brings forth depictions of fleeting scenographies that recall Chinese landscape paintings, and by manipulating the material’s erosion, she creates atmospheres not unlike the torid sea storms of J.M.W. Turner. The forthright weight and strength of raw steel is counterposed to the pathos of the passing of time, transcending nature and culture, progress and timelessness.
Much as the Abstract Expressionists did with paint and canvas, Sturdy uses steel to shift her representation of the body from its form to its activity. This transmutation continues in her saturated color works in the most “man-made” of materials: resin. Notably, this is also the material in which she allows herself the most freedom to manipulate. Dripping, pouring, painting, cracking, scattering and arranging, Sturdy brings forth blossoming flowers and melting ice, the tectonic shifts of snow drifts and the quiet pattering of soft rain.
In our current geological age, in which human activity is the dominant influence on the environment, representations of nature carry undeniable social and political meanings. Sturdy’s resin works celebrate human creativity and invention while also calling to attention our responsibility to the natural world. Through paintings, sculpture, furniture and objects, she moves from the abstract to the representational, sometimes going so far as to make the audience participants in the creative process, with elemental forms designed for continuous reconfiguration. She invites us to find the work’s completion. To connect with her vision.