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Art Lessons from the Renowned Rita Widagdo

When strolling around urban projects in Indonesia, one may notice Rita Widagdo’s poetic monuments. The famous sculpture artist is best known among art collectors for her nature-inspired artworks. Yet, she is also known for her dedication to the field of Fine Art education at Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). Her course, Nirmana (Basic Design: a study on organising elements of art, such as lines, forms and colours into a two-or three-dimensional forms with visual value), is loved by many students; some of whom have gone on to become the nation’s leading designers. We met the professor at her home studio in Bandung and talked about her profession and views.

PHOTO BY Bagus Tri Laksono and Rita Widagdo doc.

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When did you become interested in the art of sculpture?

Since I was young, I was interested in painting. In my hometown there were several old churches, one of which was a small chapel that housed a collection of valuable sculptures from the gothic era. That further propelled my interest in sculptures. At the age of 16, I saw an exhibition of wooden sculptures, which piqued my interest even more. I then went on a holiday in the home of my uncle—who happened to be a sculptor—and I asked him to show me how to carve wood. He was pleased that I showed interest in his line of work and took me to his workshop.

I was taught about various kinds of wood, wood grains, types of carving and how to hold the sculpting tools. Then, he gave me a piece of wood for me to try carving on. I was surprised because it all happened very quickly, but I gave it a try. When I hit the piece of wood, the blade sank in smoothly and I was immediately overcome with the most exhilarating feeling. I did not feel like I was hurting that piece of wood because it seemed to take the blade willingly. I was very happy at that moment as I had never felt something so fulfilling. Since then I haven’t stopped sculpting.

However, after many years working solely with wood, I decided to use other materials such as stones and metals. After graduating from high school, I was accepted at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design to study sculpturing. At that time a woman sculptor was rare. In my class, I was the only girl but I was not exempt from any subjects taught there. I joined in when we learned about welding and casting metals and bronze. Just like the boys in my class, I crushed and ground the sand myself, never asking for help. Indeed, I have been very meticulous since I was young in all technical matters.

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When did you start teaching?

I began as an adjunct lecturer at ITB, while still carrying my German passport, in March 1966. I have been teaching for 36 years now, but during the last 10 years I generally teach the Semiotic Theory subject at the Magister Program of the university. Before that, I was focusing more on the basic art and sculpting lessons.

Can you tell us about the Nirmana subject that you are teaching at the Art and Design Faculty (FSRD) ITB?

My professors in Stuttgard were largely influenced by Bauhaus, with new efforts to solve the problems in the design world. They wanted to return every design to its basic shape by exploring all of the available materials. The school had one basic course for first year students, where they learnt to draw and colour— here, students learnt a lot about creating three-dimensional shapes.

The materials used included corrugated metal, wire, straw, cardboard and clay. During the course, we understood the characteristics of each material in order to create something that suited each one. Each student did his own exploration, so they could come up with an innovative and personalised form. With this purity of form, everyone could be creative and produce a very subjective creation. When I first came to Indonesia, I saw that the art of painting had very much developed into the abstract realm.

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At that time, the Sculpture Art programme had just started for two years by Bud Muchtar, and there was the Graphic Design and Ceramic programme, but there was not one particular subject that gave the basic lesson for all art majors. At FSRD ITB, new students in their second year choose their programs, such as Interior Design, Sculpture Art, Product Design, to name a few. I suggested following in the footsteps of my old school in Stuttgard in order to provide a common topic for all students majoring in Art. Then it was decided to teach the Nirmana course for all FSRD students in their first year to help them learn more about themselves. And since then Nirmana has been the one subject in the school that still exists today.

I had also taught the same programme in the architecture department for 10 years, with the hope that these architects would be brave enough to think and create totally different spaces, instead of making rectangular forms over and over again. At that time this notion was not as widely accepted as today—at the moment we see many architects changing to create sculptural forms. Perhaps we might not need sculptures, considering how much architecture has become more sculptural in form. When I teach Nirmana, my main objective is to let everyone know that they can do it. We can never completely know everything, but we will never be at the end of our wits as long as we learn from the characteristics of the materials themselves. There is no end to creativity. At the end of the Nirmana subject, the students are expected to have faith that they are in the right place.

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What are the important aspects in creating a sculpture?

In various cases, I start from an idea. Craftsmanship is a very important thing to project in our imagination, and it is vital to determine what material is the most suitable to achieve this form. Sometimes a new material or technique that we want to try can become a source of inspiration in my work. In life, it is rare that we can achieve perfection. In art, we might be able to get close to perfection by creating something that ‘feels’ right. The truth that we discover in the whole concept can remind us of perfection. Art ends with perfection, but in order to achieve and begin this, we must start with the confusion phase and then the asking phase. After perfection is attained, we must start again with the confusion and asking stages. But we will always have something in our minds, which will propel us to create a process and finally come to a halt when we feel that everything has fallen into place.

Please tell us about a work of art that you have done.

Recently I am actually more focused on doing art for architecture, especially in public spaces. I consider my finished sculptures in small and medium scale gone when people purchase them because there is small chance for me to see them again after that. But when your work is displayed in a public area, many people are able to enjoy it. I have also created reliefs that I use as doors. This also adds special appearance to a room. It is a relief, an artwork— that can be used functionally as a door. Whenever I have a chance to create something, even for something as simple as a door, I’ll do it. I don’t necessarily call it a work of art. I still call it a door, but a door that is designed with a good aesthetic.

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How do you begin your design process?

I always start with a model—as it involves the hands, the eyes and brain. I “play” first with a small maquette in my studio at home before recreating it in real size. I always work in Bandung. If the sculpture is less than six meters in height, I usually complete it in a workshop near my house. If it is bigger, then I will do it in ITB’s workshop in Lembang.

How do you get your inspiration?

I am mostly inspired by nature—plants, flowing water, and the like. Whatever I see—even passing through a motorcycle garage—will supply me with ideas! Once I have an interesting idea, I quickly create a small sketch, which I will keep inside a folder. I have a few folders where I store various ideas that I might combine later to create something. We must keep our eyes wide open because we are collecting all the time. We should not worry that our ideas and inspirations will dry up.

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