Burning inside 

We're used to seeing sculpture in public places--courtyards, parks or museums--as an almost always positive thing: noble, daring, lyrical or strong. Some Pieces aim for a spirtual connection. But rarely does sculpture suggest as much conflict, as much soul-searching, as do the works of one Hugh Timlin.

An intensely focused artist whose work is half of a serene but complex double bill at Detroit's Center Galleries this month. Timlin has taken the long way around to recognition--passing through seminary training, spirtul independence, marriage breakup and hard times to a personal reckoning late in the game.


The planets must have been lined up just right when Hugh Patrick Timlin was born. Or maybe it was benevolent black slabs from another galaxy, or nothing more complicated than leprechauns. Because he seems to have been connected from the very first, plugged into the creative, the intuitive, the wide-open mind of possibilities.

If you ask him where it all started – the long interlocking chain of studies, exhibitions, installations, backbreaking workdays, teaching jobs and artist residencies – he’ll say that it began almost at the beginning. His fascination with sculpture started at age 3, when clay and any other material that came to hand were already more than playthings. "It was one of those things that I just always did," Timlin recalls.

Taking what was available and making it into something else, transforming it from "only wood or clay," Timlin would elevate raw material to the next level and then the next, for the rest of his life.

The Timlin name dates back to the 12th century Norman conquest of Ireland and means "son of little Tom." "They were all a bunch of clerics and poets and chicken thieves, from what I understand," Timlin laughs.

The family’s first sculptor came into the world in 1945 at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. But his Irish Catholic forebears came to this country in 1905 to settle in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where they worked in the coal mines.

They were people who knew the meaning of a hard day’s work and became union organizers, helping to form the United Mine Workers with John L. Lewis and later, in Detroit, organizing for the fledgling UAW. And also among them were teachers who put a high value on education – on the vital importance of learning.

"My grandfather was basically a well-educated man, and he couldn’t get a teaching job in this country because he was Irish – so he became a coal miner."

As a young man

In his teens, Timlin considered a life in the priesthood. He became a pacifist because of his involvement with the Catholic Worker, a group which accepted a life of voluntary poverty and service to the poor. And he was already studying at a Roman Catholic seminary when he took his first art class in 1964 at the Society for Arts and Crafts (now Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies). Some of his fellow art students – John Piet, Robert Sestock, Alex Hamilton and Jack Ward – would later become important Detroit artists.

Piet, now professor of art at Macomb Community College, remembers Timlin as "a quiet, contemplative guy, producing works that were like icons of another world. They were so exquisite that they had the look of having been made with a template. The skill was undeniable. He didn’t really talk about his seminary studies, but the evidence was there in the work."

Timlin remembers himself as a shy, skinny kid who wasn’t quite sure which foot to pedal with – the spiritual right one or the sensual, artistic left – an indecision of the soul that he would eventually resolve by jumping into his art with both feet.

Private stand

In the mid-’60s, Timlin made three important decisions about the direction his life was to take: He protested the military buildup in Vietnam by refusing to cooperate with the draft – resulting in a prosecution against him that was eventually dropped on a technicality. "I’ve gotten in as much trouble from following my conscience as other people do from drunk driving," he confides.

He left the seminary because more and more his interest in politics and the arts came into conflict with his religious studies. And he intensified his commitment to making art.

"I still consider myself Catholic, and probably in the most basic sense of the term – I look at the religious implication of the word, ‘Catholic’ being ‘universal’ rather than this hierarchical structure – and in my experience, because of my spiritual values, it meant a commitment to social justice," Timlin recalls.

At Arts and Crafts, which he began to attend full time in 1967, some of his first teachers were sculptor Walter Midener and silversmith Mike Vizzini – whose disciplines have been the bedrock underlying all of Timlin’s work. But he didn’t abandon the spiritual mind of his early years, maintaining it to this day.

"That was all part of what I just kind of accepted as my lifestyle ... and it pretty much has determined the course I’ve taken. It’s been a real adventure so far."

In green pastures

In 1970 when Timlin married Sandra Brackett, a Canadian of English-Scottish-African descent, it was a real joining of sensibilities: They studied weaving together and shared a deep certainty about the connectedness of art and faith.

"We made everything for the wedding ourselves: the rings, a chalice, candleholders, plates, my wedding suit, dresses for two flower girls and a bridesmaid. I wove Sandra’s wedding dress out of silk, and she designed it. Our life was to be this devotion to the arts and crafts."

The young couple wanted to leave the city to take up farming as soon as they could find the right location. During the next 10 years, as they saved toward the departure, they produced six children: Aaron, Jacob, Rebekah, Daniel, Rachel and Mara. Then, after finding the right plot of land near the village of Lake (north of Mt. Pleasant), they started building their own house in May 1981, eventually moving in by December of that year. As a sculptor, Timlin was sure of the foundation and stone walls, though he’d never before put in a wood frame or other rough carpentry. Still, the results were clean and solid. A few years later, their seventh child, Joseph, was born.

"When we were at the farm, we never had money. But I can remember one Christmas, my youngest daughter, Mara, was just maybe 4 or 5 at the time ... we were dancing around, had music on, and I had her in my arms. Then when I set her down, she looked up at me and said, ‘You know, Daddy, when I grow up, I want to help the poor people.’"

Timlin considers poverty to be a state of mind, specifically one of desperation. Yet, life on the farm was anything but desperate. As Aaron Timlin, now director of detroit contemporary gallery, recalls, "After dinner, we’d play Legos and knit and spin and sit next to the fire. My strongest memories are of listening to the radio on Saturday night, to Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion.’ And then dancing with my brothers and sisters."

To generate income, the family raised sheep, started a spinning business and wove the wool into cloth. The kids worked alongside their parents and learned a whole new attitude toward existence, in which matter and spirit were part of the same process, and built into the daily rounds was a kind of organic politics.

"I was interested in spinning because of Gandhi," Timlin says. "Part of the mainstay of the revolution in India was that Gandhi broke the economic constraints that the British had on the textile industry in India by having the people spin. He would say that by spinning half an hour a day, it would change the world. That was one of the bases of his development of the ashrams and self-sufficiency and, really, the idea of home education."

The first directive

Common sense, which is quite different from one decade to the next, often changes with what can seem like the blink of an eye. The idea of schooling children at home seemed almost unthinkable in Michigan before the Timlins decided to start doing it on the farm at Lake. First they kept the kids home and taught them their ABCs. Then they made a daring leap and just traded in the tedium of morning lessons at the kitchen table in favor of all-day learning on the go.

"My basic theory of education was that you don’t necessarily need to make somebody conscious of the act of learning for them to learn," Timlin says. "What we eventually came to was unschooling. We just lived every day. The kids learned basic math, reading, writing, but it was all connected to what our daily activity was. So there was no disconnect; there wasn’t a time during the day in which you set out to learn something and the rest of the time you lived. It was just, here we were, we had this stuff called life that we had to do, and in order to do that there were certain things you had to learn."

Recalls Aaron, "We were making wine, shearing sheep, building and fixing things while everyone else was in school ... but it was just something we fell into. And now I have this confidence that I can learn whatever I need: nursing, building construction, business management, income tax preparation ... whatever."

It was learning by doing and, of course, the utopian idyll couldn’t last – the proverbial manure started hitting the fan. A board of education inspector came by to check out these pioneers of pedagogy. Miraculously, after a long conversation, the inspector went away sympathetic to the Timlin project.

"We were one of two families in the state of Michigan that were homeschooling at that time ... and we did have the saving grace of being rather isolated," Timlin recalls.

But another, more persistent inspector came around, one who made it his personal business to get the kids back in school. The Timlins were charged with "educational neglect" and yet another legal action had their centuries-old Irish name attached to it.

However, after much back-and-forth negotiation and publicity, both parties agreed to test the three oldest Timlin children to determine the skill levels they had achieved through homeschooling. It was found that Aaron, 13 at the time, had roughly an eighth-grade competency in reading and math, about right for his age. Jacob, a year younger, was totally frightened by the test and bombed. But Rebekah, two years younger still, tested out at nearly 12th-grade levels. All of which averaged out to a fairly representative profile of the general population.

The prosecution backed off. "Unschooling" had won.


"One of the things people talk about in my work is that spiritual element ... but to me it’s no less physical. In fact, I try to tell my students (in sculpture at Wayne State University), ‘You’ve got to begin to think with your whole body – it’s not just a thinking process, but it’s this kind of total response to what you’re doing.’"

Timlin will talk about art or philosophy or personal commitment at the drop of a sheep turd (and there are plenty of those). Ask him about teaching creativity to his own kids and he’ll answer, "In our house, people draw like they eat – it’s just something you do." Which sounds so easy that the labor and concentrated thought that have gone into his own sculpture seem forgotten. But ask him about specific pieces that he’s made, the ideas behind them, where the inspiration came from, and he’ll make the hours fly by with quiet, intense conversation.

How did the vertical form, something like a tower or tombstone, get into his work?

One day, at a railroad siding, Timlin had "an epiphany ... a revelation. There was a very austere piece of architecture, an abandoned grain elevator or loader over the tracks. I saw it as having a kind of sexual function, as both a repository and dispenser of seed. And it started me on my ‘Elevator Series’ in which I pared everything down to minimal forms. There’s a paradox between sexuality and abandonment in the grain elevator series."

Are the later column shapes related to the towers?

"I was thinking of the biblical concept of the ‘high places’ – not mountains, but columns– the column then becomes the seat of God. I made this connection between spirituality and sexuality. So I began doing these columns with a detail on the top which became calligraphic; I’ve always had an interest in Zen and Asian calligraphy."

Yet the pieces seem to direct the viewer inward, to a silent interior.

"One of the elements in sculpture that we don’t often talk about is time. My pieces make me stop – they become meditative, contemplative occasions. And I hope they get the viewer to think not about how things are made, but rather what they are. Pieces that make the viewer stop are as much a confrontation in our society as pictures with elephant dung in them."


In 1991, after 21 years of marriage, Sandra and Hugh separated. She became a homeopathic doctor and minister. After being appointed artist-in-residence at Central Michigan University the following year, Timlin lost first his father then his younger brother. Soon afterward, the separation from Sandra became divorce. "What was slated to be the best year of my life turned out to be one of the worst."

In a quiet, hesitant voice, Timlin admits turning to alcohol, but what at first seemed like a way out was actually a way down. And the aftershock of the breakup of his marriage was a long time – years – in subsiding. When the spirit goes, all of life threatens to go with it.

Timlin’s touchstone, his return to grace, is in sculpture. His 1998 monument for children with cystic fibrosis in Mt. Elliott Cemetery (at the corner of Mt. Elliot and Lafayette) marks the graves of two destitute young victims of the disease. Titled Covenant, it’s a dual-columned reaffirmation in marble of what Timlin is all about. And as a gesture of wordless compassion, it showed him a way out of the stasis and self-destructiveness of his feelings of loss.

Most recently, Timlin’s high-profile participation in group shows at Alley Culture (Detroit) and detroit contemporary set the stage for the harvest at Center Galleries.

"One morning, I was sitting putting my socks on. I thought to myself, ‘What are you so worried about? You’ve got seven kids, you’ve got at least 10 friends, you’re used to being poor, you’ve had the love of beautiful women in your life. Why should you worry about how people are gonna look at your work?’ And then I looked down and I said, ‘And not only that, you’ve got clean socks.’"

Burnt offerings

Timlin has subjected his latest works, currently on view at the CCS Center Galleries, to a last step in the creative process that few artists ever consider: burning. After forming these sculptures from wood, stone and clay, he names them and sets them on fire. But his purpose is to ritualize, not destroy. And the results are inflected with pain, with undeniable signs of the conflagration.

"In the technological age, one of the things we have to ask is just what are we saying to people? And very often that’s reduced to making stuff with shock value and either a technological impression or something novel. And I was thinking, with these pieces, ‘OK, let’s really express something novel – let’s express something of our human vulnerability and our frailty and the tenuousness of our existence.’"

Rather than an expiation of sin, the revealing "Burnt Offerings" suggest a series of sacrifices that have been brought to a halt midway in their unfolding. Coming from a man who’s had so much to do with growth, fertility and the life process, there’s an earthly desolation in these recent works that has to give us pause, make us stop and think – not about Timlin but ourselves, our own.

Timlin plans to return to the farm, to continue sculpting and to set up a summer art school on the land that has become a lasting part of his vision, like a flame that won’t go out.

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