A! Magazine for the Arts

Helen French works on a new sculpture. (photo by David Grace)

Helen French works on a new sculpture. (photo by David Grace)

French uses her physical therapy skills to aid in her sculpting

December 26, 2022

Helen French, who is now a sculptor, began her career as a physical therapist – a career she pursued for 46 years.

After she retired, she turned to the College for Older Adults at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, Abingdon, Virginia, to stay focused.

“I took courses like weaving, knitting, astronomy and sculpting. Lynn Price, the instructor for sculpting at William King Museum or Art, mentored me in portrait sculpture using terracotta clay, and I found my niche. Physical therapy required analytical and observational skills, as well as the art of using touch to palpate tissues to determine normal or abnormal tissues, so it was right in my area of expertise. I enjoyed it so much I asked if I could return the following session and continue taking private lessons.

“I had never done any sculpting in the past, just watercolor in high school. I’ve been doing it now for six years and besides portraits, I do animals and Norman Rockwell-inspired sculptures. Sculpting has become a creative outlet that is somewhat mindless and allows me to use my knowledge of anatomy, human emotion, love and appreciation of nature and animals. It has been a godsend to occupy me after my husband died,” she says.

She gets inspired by connections and people or other things that look interesting. Her fish sculptures came about because her son is a deep-sea fisher, and she knows a trout fisherman. “I’m in love with horses. I have been since I was an infant practically, and so I have lots of horse sculptures,” she says. Some of her favorites are of work horses “because they’re strong and have character.”

One of her sculptures was inspired by a man she saw having breakfast at a local fast-food restaurant. She says his face had a lot of “history” and “character” in it, so she needed to sculpt that face. “I love Norman Rockwell because he pictures situations and people and characters that just appeal to me, and they’re really true,” she says. She has completed several Rockwell-inspired sculptures and hopes to do more in the future.

French was raised in Colombia, South America, and came to the USA in 1964 to enter college and then graduate school. This explains why one of her sculptures is a bullfight scene from one of the ticket stubs from one of the fights she attended as a teenager. Presently she is working on a commissioned portrait sculpture and a mule.

She says, ‘The challenge is to create a three-dimensional sculpture from two-dimensional pictures. It’s a lot of guess work and imagination and knowledge of anatomy and so it makes it a lot more challenging and fulfilling. I’ve had a situation this year. My husband died, and my sister moved in with me, and she has Alzheimer’s. That’s really curtailed my time for sculpting, but this is my sanity - if you will,” she says.