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Scott Allen

Michael Sherrill
Scott Allen

Arts

Inspired by a true story

Artist Michael Sherrill’s sculptures portray the pain and beauty of life

Sculptor Michael Sherrill’s studio in western North Carolina is tucked under trees, nestled a few yards from a small waterfall. The soft, cascading sound of the waterfall met the snap of a wood-burning fireplace as Sherrill poured green tea into stoneware mugs and described how nature and faith influence his art. 

Though the trees outside were bare, Sherrill is known for botanical sculptures mimicking the flora that fills the woods with warmer weather—magnolia blossoms, rhododendrons, and leafy oak branches. His art has appeared in galleries at the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and, most recently, the ASU Art Museum in Tempe, Ariz. Working with metal, clay, and glass, Sherrill says he “uses artifice to create a world that speaks to what is true.”

What is true? Sherrill, a Christian, creates art that reflects the natural world, the human condition, and the Creator. In his sculptures, though, those ideas are subtle. Sherrill, 65, doesn’t call himself a “Christian artist” but simply remarks, “I’m a maker of stuff and a lover of Jesus.” 

On a morning walk through the woods near his log cabin home in Bat Cave, Sherrill stopped to photograph a strange-looking mushroom. He often brings the outside world inside his studio, where branches and leaves hang from walls.

Those artifacts inspire Sherrill: His lifelike botanical sculptures are beautiful, yet appear scarred, bruised, and weather-worn. The imperfections give the pieces believability. They symbolize life continuing amid trauma. One of Sherrill’s favorites is Remnant—a blackened, dying oak branch that curves downward, its bark splitting and cracked. A cluster of withering leaves hangs from the end. 

I’m a maker of stuff and a lover of Jesus.

Yet, one small branch grows upward with green signs of new life. The title alludes to the remnant of Israel that God promised to save. “There was always a portion that would be saved,” says Sherrill. “There would be life.”

Not all of Sherrill’s artworks mimic nature. At a recent Smithsonian exhibition in Washington, D.C., a room displayed teapots Sherrill created over a series of years. Some contorted or twisted into fantastical shapes, and some whimsicslly seemed to fit in a luncheon of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. Others, coated in 23-karat gold leaf, were molded into graceful arabesque gestures or elongated and twisted, like one dubbed “Jacob’s Ladder.” 

As a young boy Sherrill tore apart clocks, toys, anything he could get his hands on: His mother said nothing mechanical was safe from her son. But his inquisitiveness led him to understand how things worked: “I was always the one who fixed her sewing machine for her.”

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Arts

Elusive forgiveness

The Death of Klinghoffer offers a pro-Palestinian bias

NEW YORK—On the opening night of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, New York City police massed outside the Metropolitan Opera House as hundreds of protesters on the streets chanted. The opera, with some historical departures, tells the true story of Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists hijacking a Mediterranean cruise ship and murdering the elderly, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew vacationing with his wife. The opera’s many critics, including Klinghoffer’s two surviving daughters, say it romanticizes the terrorists and creates a moral equivalence between Palestinian suffering and Klinghoffer’s murder.

On opening night, ticket holders passed through NYPD checkpoints while protesters in wheelchairs shouted at them, “Find your conscience!” Many operagoers wore yarmulkes, some women wore headscarves, and one man wore the emerald green of the Palestinians. Inside, security guards searched bags, and police stationed themselves in the hall. As the conductor took his place, the audience met him with a chorus of boos and applause.

The libretto (the opera’s text) is morally and poetically incoherent, but the pro-Palestinian bias is clear. Each side does have an opportunity to bring out its grievances. The opera opens with a “chorus of exiled Palestinians,” then a “chorus of exiled Jews,” both singing about their suffering and wandering. The Palestinian exiles talk about Israelis razing their homes, and the Jewish exiles open suitcases and pull out trees, which they plant in the ground as they sing. The hijackers recount family members dying in Israeli raids, while Klinghoffer himself recounts Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli citizens. 

In the opera as written, Klinghoffer’s murder occurs offstage. The Met made the right decision to show the terrorist shooting a weak old man in a wheelchair at point-blank range, making the audience jump as the gun rang out and blood spurted from Klinghoffer’s chest. That is a moment of moral clarity— the hijackers are the bad guys despite their backstory. 

The opera closes with a beautiful, grief-filled aria from Klinghoffer’s wife Marilyn. In it, she lashes out at the terrorists and an apathetic world. The intimacy of the family’s story here makes it all the more jarring that Adams never received consent from the Klinghoffers to create this opera.

Kamel Boutros, a Christian, grew up in Egypt and was an opera singer with the Met for about five seasons—the first Arab to perform in a Met opera. He sang the part of Mahmoud—one of the terrorists—in several European productions of Klinghoffer and performed the part in the 2003 film. 

He said watching from backstage the choruses of exiled Jews and exiled Palestinians always made him weep: “At the end of the day, it’s incredibly beautiful music but it doesn’t resolve anything.” He questions the libretto’s attempts to equalize all sides, when they aren’t equal. “I don’t agree with terrorism no matter what the story is. … But I understand anger on all sides. That’s why there will never be peace. This blood is more worthy than that blood is. There’s no one side saying, ‘Forgive me.’ It’s a nonstop cycle.”

Boutros spoke better than he knew. On opening night police arrested one man who shouted over and over in the middle of the performance, “The murderer of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” A woman yelled back, as if in consolation, “No one here is trying to forgive him.” Security removed another woman who yelled a vulgarity at one of the terrorist characters when he first appeared on stage.

Boutros said if all the work does is stir “more and more of my hatred, then it doesn’t serve. … We haven’t learned that forgiveness is the victory. I don’t know how forgiveness can look in the Middle East.”

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