Art and Heart: Emile Birch



Photo by John Hession

"You don't have to cry," sculptor Emile Birch says gently to a tearful fourth-grader at a recent artist residency at a New Hampshire elementary school.

Most of the girl's classmates had already etched a solar system-related design of their choice into their squares of clay, but the girl, after starting and erasing many times over, still had nothing but a blank tile in front of her. Birch asks the girl's name, and after a bit of brainstorming, suggests an image of a comet. The girl, named Haley, suddenly brightens.

Such struggles are not uncommon in art, Birch says. Another work project had him guiding 500 medical staff members, patients and local residents at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as they tapped their inner artist to craft pieces of what would become a 60-foot clay tile design. "It was just amazing!" Birch says. "Many of these people were doctors and nurses and they were absolutely petrified of picking up a piece of clay." Birch worked with them, hand over hand in some cases, to help them get started. Today, the completed artwork is mounted in DHMC's outpatient clinic rotunda, and those who contributed to the project often stop and point out to friends and visitors the individual section that they created.

Birch can relate to the intimidation that some people feel when they encounter art. "I have that same fear when someone asks me to play tennis," he says, laughing. "But it's not hard to learn. I think in our culture we are very happy to buy things that we like, but often expressing things that are important to us, meaningful to us - we probably don't do that very well."

Birch's comfort with art started early, sparked by his grandfather, who wasn't a professional artist but created and sent a drawing for Birch every Sunday, starting around the time when Emile was 6 or 7 years old. The young Birch, growing up in Rhode Island, tried to duplicate the nature scenes, which often featured barns and horses or sailboats, and over time realized that he wanted to pursue drawing and painting. "I saw it then as just sort of magical that you could take a pencil and paper and you could create something that had meaning. I've always kept that with me and relived it through my art," he says.

When he was about 20, Birch's educational pursuits led him to an art school in Manhattan, where he was disappointed to learn that a painting class he was hoping to take was already full. "I went downstairs to the basement of the building where the sculptures were, and met this gentleman named John Hovannes, a very famous sculptor in the 1930s, and he said - he had this very thick accent - he said [imitating Hovannes' accent and deep, gruff voice], 'You want to be a sculptor.' And I said, 'Well, I don't know.' And he handed me a big stone, and he said, 'Carve this.' And I did. And I spent nearly three years studying there. I started carving and fell in love with it. When I moved to New Hampshire, it became my primary medium."

Today, nearly four decades after settling in Canaan, Birch has made his mark on the local art scene. He has been commissioned to create an assortment of public sculptures over the years, including a bronze "Pollyanna" in Littleton based on the well-known fictional character; "The Eternal Shield," a memorial located outside the Statehouse that honors law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty; "Vigilance," a tribute to firefighters in Portsmouth; and "Founders Gate," designed to help mark Exeter's 250th anniversary.

Just as notable, though, are the results of Birch's collaborations with Granite Staters of all stripes that adorn the halls of elementary schools, healing centers, recreation centers and other buildings where he has worked with kindergartners, seniors, individuals with disabilities and prisoners. "Teaching is really a joy," he says, especially when it allows him to get to know people and create lasting friendships.

Birch's eagerness to share his artistic knowledge and skill exemplifies his overall philosophy. "I give, and then I teach people to give, because that's what art is all about," he says. To illustrate his point, Birch tells a story about being at a conference and running into a former student. "I'm at this dinner and I'm walking up to get something to drink and this young woman walks up to me and says, 'You're Emile Birch.' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'I made a sculpture with you when I was in the fifth grade.'" Birch laughs and says, "I remembered the sculpture she made: a ballerina. It was at the Bradford Elementary School." Such encounters don't happen every day, he says, but are "wonderful" when they do.

Especially in our technology-driven world, art is something we all need, Birch says. "Art making is thinking, and we need time to think. We need time to understand things about ourselves. The arts are an opportunity to be genuine with ourselves," he says. "It's surprising what you can learn about yourself and about others by just giving everybody a piece of clay." NH

Birch Describes Some of His Kinetic Works

Broad Meadow Elementary School

"The wonderful people at the Broad Meadow Elementary School in Needham, Mass., asked me to work with them to design the large main foyer of their new school. The old school was being torn down and on the same spot a new school was being erected. The original idea was for everyone, students and staff, to create a ceramic tile that would be displayed as part of a large relief sculpture. As we developed the design for the space, we decided to include relief line drawings of the animals taught in the elementary schools curriculum. These relief line drawings of animals would be in the actual scale of the real animals. We also created kinetic sculptures based on the fifth grade curriculum, which includes the principles of simple machines. Students developed the design and I created a kinetic piece of sculpture from their ideas. These sculptures are powered by a solar panel and storage battery.

"Another aspect of the project is that the Needham Science Center developed curriculum-related materials for teachers to use when teaching the concepts within this sculpture installation.

"This whole creative endeavor was dedicated to noted inventor/scientist and Needham School Board President Charles Wykoff, who believed in the myriad connections between the arts and science."

Merrimack High School

"This sculpture evolved from a relatively small wall piece into a seven-foot mirrored pyramid that is sequenced by a computer that controls its interior movements of welded steel school icons, the sequence of strobe lights and colored lights, as well as a sound system that is designed to be an oracle/jukebox by playing mp3 files that students submit of their poetry, spoken word, student band, student singer/songwriter or favorite tunes.

"I have worked on kinetic sculptures for more than 10 years. Most of the sculptures in this series were created in a collaboration through an artist residency. When I start a kinetic sculpture residency I don't have a particular idea for the installation. The design is developed through the collaboration."

Governor's Arts Awards

"I was commissioned to design a large kinetic installation as a set for the Governor's Awards at the Capitol Center for the Arts. It consisted of five 21' triangular forms that were suspended from the ceiling grid and attached at their base atop a 4' high three-dimensional pentagon. Each piece was illuminated by two scroller light units that were controlled by a computer. This design provided an array of different effects throughout the event."

(Visit emilebirch.com for more information and a gallery of his creations.)

Public Sculpture Projects (by year)

"Meriden Landscape" 1978 was commissioned by Creare Inc. as part of New Hampshire's first artist in industry project.

"The Mill Colonnade" 1980 was the first sculpture to be commissioned for N.H.'s Sculpture on the Highway Program. It was created in collaboration with the Upper Valley Training and Development Center.

"The Wilderness Gate" 1985 was commissioned by Chubblife America as a centerpiece for their collection of works by New Hampshire artists.

"The Sunapee Mandala"1986 was commissioned by the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and New Hampshire State Parks to celebrate Sunapee State Park's 50th anniversary.

"The Governor Hugh Gallen Memorial" 1989 was commissioned by the people of New Hampshire as a tribute to Hugh Gallen for the work that he championed for people with special needs.

"Founders Gate" 1988 was commissioned by the city of Exeter to commemorate its 250th anniversary.

"The Eternal Shield" 1998 was commissioned by the N. H. Law Enforcement Officers Committee. This sculpture is a memorial to New Hampshire law enforcement officers who have fallen in the line of duty.

"Pollyanna" 2002 was commissioned for the town of Littleton by the Eames family to celebrate the spirit of Littleton native Eleanor Hodgman Porter's beloved character, Pollyanna.

"Vigilance"2007 was commissioned by the city of Portsmouth as a tribute to firefighters, past and present, in the city of Portsmouth.

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