Maker Stories

Melissa J. Gondek’s Family Sculptures: Celebratory Symbols of Love

January 9, 2017

Family photos have the power to evoke all kinds of complicated feelings: nostalgia, awkwardness, humor, love. They grace our holiday cards and fill up our (increasingly digital) photo albums. They capture small moments that can hold big meaning when we look back on them later on. These photos have their place in our family histories for sure–but what if we could display a representation of our love that’s more tangible, less fleeting? That gets at the essential feeling of being loved, rather than a specific moment in time?

That’s where sculptor Melissa J. Gondek comes in. She says of her work: “I’m sculpting love, and everyone needs more of that.” Our customers have already fallen for her sculptures that depict the bonds we have with our cats and dogs, and so we’re excited to have an exclusive “So Happy Together” family sculpture from Melissa–one that showcases the sweetness of the ties between parents and their children.

The customizable pieces communicate meaningful messages in a heartfelt, simple package. Parents sit with their kids (you choose one or two) cozied up on their laps in a sculpture that would be equally at home on an entryway table or a mantle, in a new baby’s nursery or close at hand on your desk. They aren’t exact replicas of your family, but instead represent its loving spirit–the essence of what keeps you all connected. The universality of the figures lets you decide what “So Happy Together” means to you–whether it’s warmth, or safety, or trust–or all of those good things wrapped up into one. 

We can’t wait to get these sentimental sculptures out to you and your families, but in the meantime, read on to hear from the artist herself about how she brings unique life to the ones we hold most dear through her work.

Has sculpting been a lifelong passion for you? How’d you get started, and how’d you end up where you are today?

​Like most ​artists, I imagine, I don’t remember a time before I created art. My earliest sculptures were of horses and dogs, and I made a little menagerie that lived on my dresser until the dust overcame them. I remember having the hardest time making the horses stand on their skinny little legs, which was my first lesson in art physics.

I actually used to carry a piece of clay around with me everywhere, well into junior high school. It kept my hands busy, and the action of playing with clay was very soothing. I realize now how weird that must have looked, but I was a pretty weird kid, overall. I like to think the clay made a charming garnish on my weirdness.

Oh, and there was that mud pie. But we don’t talk about that.

So sculpting isn’t so much of a passion as something I can’t not do. I’m most at rest when my hands are working, and I fidget endlessly (see “piece of clay,” above). I’m also intensely tactile, so I touch everything to feel the texture, hardness, coolness, and, of course, shape. I took a course in metal sculpting once, but ended up deeply frustrated because touching 2,000-degree metal with your bare hands tends to give poor results along with those serious burns.

I put aside the idea of art as a profession sometime around college, and went into business instead. I worked with a range of people and companies to develop business strategies, analytics, and growth plans. About as far from sculpting as I could get! I created art on the side and continued taking classes from time to time.

Then I had a life change that included a cross-country move, and I decided to come back to art full-time. The business lessons have served me well, because sharing my art with the world requires a lot more knowledge than just how to create sculpture.

There seems to be a running theme in your sculptures–connections. Connections between people and their pets, their family members, their loved ones. Tell us more about what inspires you to make pieces like these.

I’ve never thought of it that way, but you’re right. I want my art to be about the positive links that make us happier and more fulfilled. I like to think I’m bringing more smiles into the world, whether I create images of a pet distracting us at work, a child sitting in our lap, or a spouse or friend embracing us. Those things are worth celebrating and replicating in the world.

I don’t create joyous art to deny the real turmoil in the world, but to multiply what’s good. I’ll never be an artist who creates images of darkness and destruction, because I don’t think the world needs any more of that. Those things do quite well enough without any help from me.

What are some of your favorite or most memorable reactions to your work? How do you imagine recipients will react to the “So Happy Together” family sculptures?

​The reaction I’m reading or hearing at that moment is my favorite!​ Seriously, there can’t be a favorite. I’ve heard laughter, chortles, chuckles, gasps, and squeals of delight. I’ve brought tears to those grieving loved ones, and to those celebrating milestones. All those reactions are precious to me, and I’ve cried more than once when reading a customer’s message.

UncommonGoods - Family Sculpture

I hope my family sculptures bring joy as they offer daily reminders of belonging, caring, and being part of a unit that loves and watches out for each other. Families aren’t simple things, but their bonds are among our most important and special.

Do you consider these sculptures to be like family portraits in their own way? If yes, how so? If no, how are they different?

​I don’t try to sculpt people’s portraits so much as their relationships, specifically love. And love is at once intensely personal and still universal.​ It’s easy to look at the world and see our divisions and differences, but I prefer to create artwork that speaks across those boundaries. Love of our families, friends, and pets remains something we all share, no matter what we look like.

The feeling in my sculpture doesn’t come from an exact portrait of the person. It comes from gestures – the tilt of a head, the position of an arm, or the angle of a hand, no matter the person’s physical characteristics. I want viewers to look at my sculpture and see themselves in the kinship and bonds I’ve shown, and to see their likeness in the sculpture’s feeling of love. I want them to laugh in recognition, and say, “That looks like me!” because I’ve captured their feelings rather than their face.

Fill us in on your process. What steps are involved in making one of these family sculptures, from start to finish? What’s your favorite part of the process?

​I usually start with an idea, like a couple kissing or something my cat did that day (she’s an endless source of inspiration). Then I play with the figures until they say what I mean. Sometimes they surprise me by saying things I didn’t think of, like the figure who put her head on her partner’s shoulder and turned my waltzing cake topper into a romantic slow dance.​ Or the toddler who leaned his head back on his dad’s chest, making my family sculpture about trust and safety, instead of just a happy moment of togetherness. Or the cat who crawled onto her human’s laptop and sat on the keyboard. Actually, that last thing happens to me several times a week, in real life.

​I’ll work on a single sculpture for days or weeks until it feels finished. Then I force myself to call it done, and I mold and cast the copies. I wax, polish, buff, and varnish every piece that leaves my studio, so the work remains very personal for me. There’s always something I want to improve even after it’s cast, but I’m happy as long as the sculpture’s voice seems clear to viewers.​

Melissa calls this: “Dirty Jobs: Art Edition”

​My favorite part of the process comes when I’m coaxing the sculpture to express what’s in my head, or when the clay presents me with an entirely new idea. Of course, this can also be my least favorite part, when the clay has a mind of its own and refuses to do much of anything. But happily those days don’t happen often.

​Actually, I also really enjoy when the delivery guys come by and see me at work in the garage (aka “the art studio annex”). Their reactions to my gear and mess can be pretty funny.​

How does personalization come into play in your pieces, and these new family sculptures in particular? What’s the strangest or most interesting personalization you’ve had to do so far?

Real-life love is everywhere, and it’s on display everyday. I’ve been inspired by a couple picnicking in the park, a mother in the grocery store line with her toddler, and how my own friends and family have supported and loved me. All I do is observe that love and try to capture it in sculpture. I designed these new family sculptures as expressions of that real-life love, especially for moms and dads living with real-world challenges.

UncommonGoods - Loved Sculpture

I was most touched by a sculpture I did for a grieving widow, who lost her husband at a young age. Her friends asked me to sculpt the couple with their dog, who was also grieving, as our pets do. They sent me a photo of the three so I could get the proportions correct, and I was struck by the unsuspecting happiness in their faces. I still cry when I think of that one.

But one of the happier sculptures I’ve made topped a wedding cake with pets, when two brides asked me to create a topper with their three dogs. I was delighted by the idea of a cake topped by these two happy brides and their dogs, and still am. Pets and weddings are two of my favorite things.

What do you find most rewarding about your work? What keeps you motivated?

I wish customers could know how much joy and delight their comments give me.​ I’m often humbled by their reactions, and I feel a deep satisfaction that I accomplished what I set out to do. For me, there’s no better motivation.

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