When the historic Octagon building, formerly an insane asylum, reopened in 2006 as an apartment building, Victoria Thorson’s sculpture, the Oculus, was there to welcome its first residents. The bronze sculpture remained there on permanent display until September when she was told to come pick it up; the gallery in the lobby, next to the building’s entrance, would soon be closing its doors permanently.
For Thorson, the gallery’s closure represents a disappointing shift away from the architect’s original vision for the building and its role in the community.
Thorson has vivid memories of the building’s 2006 opening. The building’s architect, Bruce Becker was there, former nurses were invited, and lunch was served in a tent outside by the pool. Speeches recounted the historic rehabilitation and history of the Octagon. Old photos and memorabilia were shown in a continuous loop on a screen at the left end of the sitting room in the lobby. “On the right,” Thorson says, “a second screen showed a loop of my sculpture in an animated enlargement.”
The YouTube video created for Thorson shown at the Octagon opening
Becker had his landscape architect draw an enlargement of her sculpture into the plan for Octagon park.
She says the long-term plan was to place an enlarged version of the sculpture across one of the paths in the park behind the building, coming from the river, so you could walk through the sculpture, and look through the view-hole to the river and bridge.
“I’d like to have people’s minds in a new place, out of time, like theatre does,” Thorson says.
Becker had his landscape architect draw an enlargement of her sculpture into the plan for Octagon park.“They took a laser scan of my piece and enlarged it. Then they made a three-D model and the animator used that info to make the YouTube video,” she says. “That was a big project.” The original idea was to use the video to get funding for the project.
According to Thorson, Becker encouraged humanitarian and cultural involvement in the project and established, and probably even designed, the gallery.
Back then the small sculpture was priced at $250,000. Now she says her piece would go for double that.
Although the Octagon gallery is now closed, Chintimini M. Keith, communications director for Bozzuto, the company currently in charge of management at the Octagon building, says a new space will be located, though the company wouldn’t confirm where this might be.
The Octagon ground lease states that there must be a gallery in the building. Some have speculated that the gallery might be moved to an area on the first floor by the small convenience store. Others are concerned it might be moved to a higher floor, where no one will stop in.
Keith says they’ve been in contact with the artist community on the Island, and that they are “very much trying to find an ideal space for the gallery, which may be located in a different space after the renovations are complete.”
Thorson, an artist and art historian who has made her living teaching and writing, says, “I have done most of the things you can do with art history.”
She has a masters degree in art history and in museum practice. In 1975 she wrote Rodin Graphics: A Catalogue Raisonne of Drypoints and Book Illustrations. Rodin is considered the preeminent French sculptor of his time, most famous for sculptures The Thinker and The Kiss. Her book became the accepted reference book for all known prints of the renowned sculptor.
“At that time there was a lot of pressure to develop one’s mind, especially as a woman,” she says of her career. “I was very interested in art history and cultural things. I have an encyclopedic history in my mind of art.”
In 1979 Thorson edited the two-volume Great Drawings of All Time: The Twentieth Century. “I did it on the typewriter, with correcto type and cut and paste, literally cut and paste,” she recalls. It took her three years to write the two volumes. She recalls a small staff of three to four people and a six-week scouting trip to Europe. “I left my son here with his dad and looked at different collections. The idea was to find the best drawings in the Twentieth Century.” She says she found many drawings in private collections or galleries that were not known. Thereafter, many of them were donated to famous art museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Because technology wasn’t where it is now, photographers had to go in and photograph the drawings, or the galleries had to provide photos. Even then, she says, “I always integrated art with art history. When I went to museums I’d bring sketchbooks. When I look them over, they’re pretty good. I did many self-portraits in the 60s and 70s in various moods.”
Things changed in the 1990s. “Musée Rodin curators could do an e-blast to all of the museums and collectors and could research this information the way I had done with letters. Up until then, my book was the source. Still, people do refer to it. I am one of the last living experts from that era.”
She still authenticates Rodin drawings. “If you go on the internet and google ‘Rodin drawings,’ mostly you see fakes.” She says, “If you spent maybe half an hour with me I could train you how to tell the difference. Rodin did his drawings by watching the model move around his studio. The fakes look very static, like the painter is doing a figure drawing.”
Thorson in her Island House studio
Today, Thorson is totally dedicated to her own work as a sculptor.
She says that assessing and collecting all of those drawings informed her work. “[Painter] Paul Feeley has a technique that I am still using today.” She describes it as space between sections. “I turned to sculpture because I couldn’t get that third dimension with painting.”
This summer she had a solo show, BassWood Bodies, an exhibition of her wood and
ceramic sculptures upstate in Garrison, New York. She works with lumber or recycled wood. Seeing potential shapes, she feels her way along the cracks, knots, and grain, following the lines of energy. Of one of her sculptures, she explains, “There was a knot in the wood. I looked at the piece with the knot. ‘Do I want to keep the knot?’ Your eye would continually go to that space. So [studio owner James Murray] took his rotary saw and it was out. So then, the next question was, ‘What do I do with the knot? Do I put it back in and twist it?’ And one day it just came to me.”
Most of her pieces can rotate 360 degrees, or swing out to recompose, while the initial core and plumb line stay intact. “All my pieces move. So they can be different. Perfect for apartments.”
For the most part, she works at her apartment in Island House where she’s lived since 1976 and raised two children. She has also been a featured artist in many RIVAA exhibitions. Working from home helps with her work. “I can look at a piece every day and say ‘What bothers me?’ If your eye catches a spot, it’s like a spot on your dress. You don’t want people to notice the spot on your dress. You want people to see all of you. But if it bothers you, and nobody else, then it’s probably not a problem.”