Sculpture artist Alan Cottrill's primal connection to clay on display in the Short North

Sarah Gormley Gallery hosts a dozen pieces by the famed 69-year-old Zanesville sculptor, his first (and likely last) solo show at a commercial gallery

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Alice" by Alan Cottrill

Despite making a bronze sculpture of Thomas Edison that stands in the U.S. Capitol, along with beloved statues of Jesse Owens and Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Alan Cottrill still refers to himself as "a hillbilly boy” from Appalachian Ohio. 

The first in his family to graduate from high school, Cottrill started a pizza shop in Coshocton, Ohio, and grew it into a global enterprise, selling franchises around the world. But he never fully embraced the life of a businessman. Over the years he collected art and did some painting, but the day he began working with clay changed the trajectory of his life.  

“When I touched clay, I just felt a primal connection,” Cottrill said by phone this week from his studio in Zanesville, Ohio. “It's tactile and sensuous, touching that clay, moving the clay. It's powerful to me. And you're dirty. Right now I have clay all over me. … It's intense and physical. If I'm alone in my studio, a lot of times I'll growl and I'll spit and cuss a lot.” 

Cottrill moved to New York City to study sculpture about 30 years ago, arriving half an hour early to his first day of classes at the Art Students League of New York, standing in front of the locked gates, itching to get his hands dirty. “From day one, I knew I wanted to be a figurative sculptor. … That's all I care to do. One could work 10 lifetimes sculpting the human form and never get tired of it,” he said. “My first 25 pieces were all busts, just trying to get certain complex expressions in the face. And I kept going down into the neck and then the shoulders.”

"Female Torso" by Alan Cottrill

Cottrill also made casts of every sculpture so he could hold on to everything he created. “At the Art Students League, you sculpt from the nude, so that's where I did about 40 of my pieces in bronze from the nude,” Cottrill said. 

Some of that work from the early ’90s is on display this month at Sarah Gormley Gallery in the Short North, Cottrill’s first solo gallery show; normally, he works solely on public and private commissions. “Sculptures that usually sell in commercial galleries are pretty or cute or fanciful. And I like primal, guttural [pieces], full of angst and pathos and intensity. And most people don't put that shit in their house,” said the artist, who made an exception for Gormley, a Zanesville native whose parents knew Cottrill. “I have a communal and tribal identity, and Sarah being from Zanesville, that's my extended tribe.”

Cottrill has 360 life-size or larger statues scattered across the country, including the likenesses of former presidents, war generals and coal miners. But the pieces on display at Gormley show a different side of Cottrill. Small figure studies illuminate the artist’s early fascination with the human form, including “Alice,” a reclining nude; “Cheryl,” a standing nude; and “Free,” which, despite Cottrill’s penchant for ruggedness, is downright playful, the thin woman’s frame tilted back on her tip-toes, arms outstretched, looking both enraptured and at peace.

"Free" by Alan Cottrill

Two large, textured bells hang from the ceiling at Sarah Gormley Gallery, one inspired by Cottrill’s travels to Japan, the other originating from a chalice Cottrill made for a cemetery. "I would walk past it in my studio, because I cast one for myself, and I would tap it with my wedding ring, just a nervous habit. And it made the most wonderful sound. I thought, this would make a great bell if I turned it upside down,” he said. “So I cast one and turned it upside down, but being that smooth, it wasn’t interesting at all. So I dripped a bunch of wax on it and made some texture, and it looked a lot more energetic and vibrant. And it sounded great.” 

Other pieces are small-scale reproductions of larger installations, such as “Boots,” from the Birmingham War Dog Memorial in Alabama, and “Boy on Books,” from the Centennial Statue outside Coshocton Public Library, a loosely autobiographical sculpture featuring a boy reading while perched atop a stack of 100 books. “My mom brought me into the library when I was 8, and oh, my goodness, it was like I walked into St. Peter's. It was that profound to me,” Cottrill said. “I could read well at a young age, so I took out every book I could on Indians for years. That's what fascinated me. That was my entrée to the world.”

These days, Cottrill is still pursuing that early interest. He’s currently at work on a seven-foot sculpture of Chief Netawatwees, who was also known as the Newcomer, the namesake of Newcomerstown, Ohio, where Cottrill will install a series of sculptures for the Lenape Diaspora Memorial. The project is also a personal one; Chief Netawatwees is his sixth-great-grandfather, a crucial branch in the family tree of this hillbilly boy from Ohio.