Louisville native William M. Duffy began his career as a painter, earning a degree in painting from the Louisville School of Art, but later felt called to the three dimensional art form.
“Why do I create? I guess the simple answer to that is because I must. I just have to,” he said. “It’s almost like trying to hold in a sneeze. You ever try to hold in a sneeze? You’re going to sneeze. And so there’s always something, an image, that wells up in me, and it says, you need to get this out.”
Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton recalled when Duffy began leaning toward sculpture.
“Now I said to him, Duff, I’m glad you’re doing it because stone was too slow for me. I tried it when I was in art school, I tried wood and I tried stone. Ultimately I got into the clay. But I admire people who can take that form, that stone, that piece of wood, and just diligently carve something out of it.”
When working in stone, wood and metal, “you’re coming directly in contact with the material,” Duffy said. “It’s hands-on. You’re pushing that material into the image that you want rather than creating it by building up.
“And I think that’s why my first love is also drawing. Working with a hard pencil on a surface like that, it’s just something to me that’s always exciting.”
Duffy focuses on the human head. “I’m always looking at or thinking about the shape of someone’s head,” he said. “Do they have high cheekbones? Is the nose wide or thin? All those things come into play when I’m carving.”
Duffy said he can make the sculptures realistic or abstract by exaggerating features. Duffy frequently explores the theme of mother and child in his work. Hamilton admires the way Duffy in his sculpture deals with both the power and the sensitivity of a mother’s love for her child.
“When he does that mother figure holding that baby, you know you better not touch that baby,” Hamilton said. “The compassion that he pulls out of those works, that’s where I see him at his best.”
Duffy is inspired by a quote from Michelangelo, who said good sculpture should be able to roll downhill, meaning it should have no frills.
“It should be compact and powerful. I found that to be true. So you look at my work, the forms are very closed in. There are not a lot of holes, or real thin things going on. It’s pretty much compact. And I found that to be the case. It makes it more powerful.”
Hamilton believes Duffy’s work will eventually make it to the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2108, which originally aired on February 20, 2016. Watch the full episode.