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Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling’s Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice on display at the Laguna Art Museum


In the far corner of Gerard Basil Stripling’s exhibition, Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice, stand three limestone pillars topped by three bronze birds – a raven, a vulture and a dove. The raven carries a “cross crosslet,” a heraldic symbol made from four Latin crosses arranged at right-angles. The crosslet is also said to represent the four Gospels. It hangs from the bird’s neck on a rope, looking nearly as heavy as the raven and making him appear both pious and encumbered. He’s saddled with the title Fidelis Miles (“Faithful Soldier”), leading us to believe he was set on this righteous path some time ago and isn’t necessarily happy about it.

Nearby, a pompous looking vulture collects a series of rings. They dangle from his feet and neck. He grips one in his beak and clings to another with a claw. Its title, Absolutum Dominium (“Absolute Power”), evokes a corporate raider or corrupt politician awaiting an opportunity to take advantage of another financial kill. Between them a dove, Quod Quam (“Which, In What Way”), sits encased inside a series of staircases leading nowhere, or everywhere – depending on your point of view.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Fidelis Miles,” “Absolutum Dominium” and “Quod Quam” (2008) were created for the Laguna Art Museum’s annual fundraising dinner “Palette to Palate” to intentionally address the two forbidden dinner conversations – politics and religion

A long tradition of literary symbolism surrounds these birds. Ravens connote death, but they’re also commonly associated with transformation from the physical to the spiritual world, portending transcendent shifts. Doves, of course, embody peace. Vultures, well, watch out.

Stripling created the series in 2008 for the Laguna Art Museum’s annual “Palette to Palate” fundraising event. Conventional etiquette advises us to avoid two topics at dinner – politics and religion. Stripling aimed to stir up those conversations. Is the raven uplifted by religion, or is he burdened by it? The vulture’s rings represent power, greed, wealth and success. But clutching onto them prevents him from doing anything else. He can neither move nor speak, caught in the shackles of rapacity.

What of that peaceful dove who seemingly escaped the endless race to nowhere? Did he take a leap of faith and fly off the conventional path to find serenity within? Did he lose his way or did he, instead, find it? 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Fidelis Miles,” “Absolutum Dominium” and “Quod Quam” (2008)

Work and Soul represents two decades of Stripling’s work as a fine arts sculptor. The nearly 30 pieces not only trace the evolution of his process but illustrate the variety of both subject matter and materials he’s willing to explore. Bronze, steel and ceramic are common elements. But there’s also rhinestones, limestone, copper, wood and glass. “It’s loosely laid out in chronological order,” Stripling said. “So you’ll see the very first sculpture I ever made and sold, and then a piece that was just finished in February.”

Sometimes his titles come to him first, an idea he wants to explore with the words as a guiding principle. Other times, Stripling has an entire essay in his head about what he wants to say. He expresses his thoughts in sculpture and then struggles to encapsulate the idea in a succinct phrase. Those are the titles he finds most challenging.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Gerard Basil Stripling has lived and worked in Laguna Beach since 2000

“I try to be very present in life,” Stripling said. “And I use everything as inspiration – be it things I see in nature or a conversation that feels incomplete. I get inspiration from things I hear in the media. Then I’ll add the emotions I want to express – things I can’t put into words, that I can’t write down – and I’ll express it in a physical sculpture. 

“Sometimes sculpting enables me to release something that’s troubling me, or it’s a way to work out ideas. Other times I’ll challenge myself to make a sculpture with only things I have in my studio at the moment. It’s all those different ways.” 

Many of Stripling’s pieces grapple with the burdens we carry and the institutions that hold us down. We’re the wardens of our own prisons, he seems to say. But we hold the keys to free ourselves. 

In addition to those three birds who wrestle with their afflictions, a few other notable pieces speak to the ways we confine ourselves. Pretty Little Cage (2022) is Stripling’s latest piece, completed only a few months ago. We build our own mental cages, he seems to imply, where we often contentedly (or perhaps discontentedly) remain. Stripling’s door has been left ajar, reminding us there’s always a way out if we choose to take it. 

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Pretty Little Cage (2022)

Note its position high above, like many of his pieces, demanding we look up. The gallery looks like a forest of sculptures. “That’s the kind of reaction I want to get from my work,” Stripling said. “I want people to look up and think while they’re looking up.”

The personal, of course, is always political and Stripling doesn’t let our nation and its government off the hook. A few pieces hit domestic policy issues head-on. Special Delivery, created during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent bailout, might not look like an obvious metaphor. The inverted bronze tree precariously balances on a limestone pedestal, its branches and leaves seemingly encased in a protective gunnysack. Its root system, however, remains exposed, stretching up and out like a raw nerve. Special Delivery represents Stripling’s indictment of the financial bailout – of who received protection and who was left out to hang. The root system (symbolizing the American worker) denotes the essential lifeblood that feeds the leaves. With healthy roots, branches – think corporate billionaires – could regenerate. And yet who did the bailouts save?

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Special Delivery (2008)

Stripling’s commentary on our contemporary culture doesn’t end there. On two opposing walls hang two very different American flags. Created in 2017, Domum Mori (“Home to Die”) is an actual flag cast in bronze. At its heart lies an untreated steel ring that’s been allowed to oxidize and degrade. Rust bleeds down the bronze like tears. There are our ideals (and the symbol of those ideals), and then there’s reality eroding them. When asked why he opted to put the piece behind glass he said, “Because it’s important. I want people to think about what’s happening.” The bronze and steel sepia tones are subdued, unlike its counterpart across the room.

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“Domum Mori” (2017)

Turn 180 degrees and another American flag sparkles with gems. The famous name “Gagosian” glitters across the flag’s center like a movie marquee surrounded by broken glass. American Dream was created in 2022 and spotlights one of the United States’ most prominent contemporary art dealers, Larry Gagosian and the internationally known Gagosian Galleries. Coming from modest middle-class roots, Gagosian began his career by selling posters on Los Angeles street corners. Today he represents artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Cy Twombly, clearing an estimated $1 billion in annual sales. Using setbacks as tools to build an artistic empire, Gagosian succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. 

“I’ve built this monstrosity of a business, and I’ve got no choice,” Gagosian told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “It’s like Sisyphus. I’ve got to keep pushing the rock up the hill – and some days the rock is pushing me and some days I’m pushing the rock. But I have to keep it going. And I love it.” 

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“American Dream” (2022)

By contrast, one of the more overtly political pieces in Stripling’s exhibit, entitled Behind the Poverty Curtain (2018), incorporates a 1911 quotation from Booker T. Washington: “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. There’s a certain class of race-problem solvers who do not want the patient to get well.” 

Washington’s quote has received a lot of attention over the past several years from both sides of the political aisle as racial tensions have escalated across our nation. Stripling cast the words in bronze and mounted them on a found wooden pallet. Voile curtains drape over it, as though we’re looking at a boarded-up window and no longer allowed to see outside. This class of people, Stripling seems to suggest, have walled themselves off and boarded themselves in. But the sheer curtains are a reminder that it’s still possible to see through to another way of life.

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“Behind the Poverty Curtain” (2018)

When Stripling was in college, an art professor challenged the class to paint a tomato. It wasn’t an unusual assignment, but the task didn’t end there. Cut the tomato open, they were told, and paint it again. Scoop out the guts. Paint it again. Paint the seeds. Squish the seeds and paint those. 

“The exercise taught us to look deeper than just the surface of an object,” Stripling said. “There’s always so much more to dive into.” The practice taught him to be more aware, to be present, to ask questions, to investigate. “I don’t want to miss out on anything that I see as a potential inspiration.” 

Evidence of that level of thinking and Stripling’s instinct for deep investigation can be found all over Work and Soul. Layers of meaning lay within each piece. 

I confess, without a knowledgeable docent and a thorough tour of Stripling’s exhibit, I would have missed much of this important backstory. But once art leaves the artist’s hands, it belongs to the larger world and is theirs to interpret and internalize. Art is as much mirror as window. 

This point was brought home by one piece in particular. Fortuito (“Fortuitous” in Spanish) was created in 2000, the first sculpture Stripling made and sold. A large, torus-shaped stone was left behind by the prior owners of Stripling’s home. He discovered the stone and created the sculpture the same year he moved to Laguna. At its base, a skirt is welded in steel, an homage to Stripling’s time in the fashion industry. “I felt like it was very good fortune that I found this stone and created a piece of art out of it,” Stripling said. “Then I was able to sell it. That gave me the confidence to keep going. It made me realize it was possible to create and generate income from selling fine art.” 

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“Fortuito” (2000)

The circular stone hangs from a triple-bound rope suspended from a copper bar. When I first encountered it, my mind triggered the image of a lynching. By the end of the docent-led tour, all three other attendees (and the docent herself) disclosed they shared my reaction. My husband, by contrast, saw a tranquil tire swing. Stripling’s cousin also told the docent how peaceful she found the sculpture. 

Isn’t that the purpose of fine art – to hold space for conversation and debate? To provide a kind of Rorschach moment for audiences to reflect on their responses? To allow for a range of interpretations that can be defended and discussed? All these versions reinforce the point – art opens the door to dialogue.

By the way, if you stand at the right angle, it’s possible to view American Dream through Fortuito’s natural window. Take any one of these construals – from talisman to sinister symbol – and consider the scene through each of those lenses. It’s a powerful statement however you choose to look at it. 

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Viewing “American Dream” through the lens of “Fortuito”

“The themes are all over the place,” Stripling said of the exhibit. “And the look of the sculptures are all over the place. The common theme is that everything is different. But I’m into communication, personal growth and positivity. A lot of the sculptures talk about that.” 

Locals will likely be familiar with Stripling’s work. Four of his permanent public art pieces are installed around town and over a dozen more appear around Southern California. He’s also had two temporary public installations. Most recently, during the month of February, Stripling’s Anastasis appeared in front of City Hall in celebration of Ethnic Diversity and Black History Month. 

Born in 1965 and raised in south central Los Angeles, a career in fine art didn’t initially seem like a viable path for Stripling. He tried a major in mechanical engineering, but ultimately graduated from Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. His first influential job, guided by Hollywood fashion designer Bill Whitten (1944-2006), was as wardrobe supervisor for Michael Jackson. The job allowed Stripling to travel, visit museums and art galleries, meet artists around the world and refine some other skills (such as welding and design) that would help launch his career as a sculptor. 

On the south wall of the exhibit hangs one of my favorite pieces. You Get Out What You Put In (2018) is a wood-framed mirror, in the center of which a bronze baby floats inside a womb of books. A few titles touch the baby – Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, Tonic for Our Times by Richard Evans, Robin Hood and Prophecy. Others, like James Michener’s Texas, hover on the outskirts. Stripling rescued the box of books from being tossed out after an art show. It’s a powerful image of what we teach our young, what mental nourishment we offer their developing minds and, perhaps, what we don’t. By using a mirror as matting, Stripling asks us to reflect on those decisions. 

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“You Get Out What You Put In” (2018)

For an artist like Stripling, who grew up outside the privileges of the art world but set his intentions early on, every piece of Work and Soul reflects a shard of his psyche. Stripling is methodical in his approach and deep in his thinking. The exhibit provides a glimpse inside the mind of an artist who’s thought hard for two decades about the varied issues confronting us and how best to communicate them. And each piece invites a new conversation. 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice” will be on display in the Steele Gallery through June 12 at the Laguna Art Museum

Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice will be on display through June 12. The Laguna Art Museum offers daily docent tours at 11 a.m. On Saturday, May 7 at 6 p.m., Stripling will be in conversation with Curatorial Fellow Rochelle Steiner at the Museum. More information on hours, tickets and other events can be found on their website at

Gerard Stripling’s work can be viewed on his website at


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