Doug Jeck's mother took off when he was 9, left him and his brother and his father to fend for themselves. She never looked back, as far as he knows.
"She deserted us," he says. "I never heard from her again."
Bereft of her womanly influence, Jeck and his brother dealt with their own feminine natures in vastly different ways. His brother, he says, is a "hulking, monstrous athlete," a shot putter and professional Scottish Highlands gamesman - rejecting the feminine, perhaps, or suppressing it with his brawn and power.
Doug Jeck, on the other hand, became an artist, and has been in his work consciously seeking the female by shaping, and sometimes breaking, exquisitely detailed statues of muscled, heroic men.
"The subject of my work is statuary - not the body," says Jeck, 35, a University of Washington professor and nationally renowned artist giving a lecture and slide show in Missoula Thursday night. "It's heroic male statuary. I'm offering a replacement for the idealized male hero with an introspective, self-examining male countenance."
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He is, in other words, shattering the myth of the male as hero, and of the idealized role assigned to men throughout patriarchy. It's one function of his ceramic sculpture, figurative work that depicts females as well as males, that invites the viewer to contemplate the meaning and nature of being human and of being male. Or female.
Ask University of Montana Professor Tom Rippon - a mentor and friend to Jeck - and he'll tell you Doug Jeck is an immensely important artist. He'll call Jeck one of the best figurative sculptors in recent history.
"What Doug has done is bring figurative work in ceramics to the highest level in a long time," Rippon says.
"I mean, he builds these things from the ground up. Who else is doing realistic figurative work like Doug is - and capturing it with their hands like he is? Like 14th-century artists. He's a young master."
That he landed in ceramics at all is either pure luck or destiny. In 1983, at age 20, he began to contemplate switching majors at the Tennessee college he attended. A trumpet player who could have been among the best, he says, he began to ponder art for no reason he can think of today: "I think there was this nasty thing inside of me that had to get out," he says, smiling.
A visit to an art college; a meeting with Rippon; a discussion about the trumpet, which Rippon also played. The two bonded, and Jeck decided to try ceramics. He was never, however, a maker of pots.
"I think of myself as a sculptor working with clay, not as a ceramic artist," he says. While ceramicists typically think about clay and glazes, Jeck thinks about what he's going to depict - and then decides whether to make it out of clay, or out of something else.
He tells of statuesque sculptures made of rubber, inspired, he says, by scenes of liberated Soviets topping statues of Lenin and Marx. "I wanted something I could push over and have bounce instead of shatter."
He's best known for his male sculptures, but Jeck has been turning back to the female form of late. A site-specific work he created last summer for a Portland apartment building depicts a primitive woman lying uneasily on her side, sheltered by flowers the same shade of red as the apartment building they complement.
His next project: An exact replica of himself, rendered in utter detail, sleeping. The chest will move in and out slightly; speakers will emit - loudly - the sounds of his breathing. Playing on the Buddhist idea that our reality is but the Buddha's dream, Jeck wants viewers to feel they are in his statue/self's dream. His aim, he says, is to "create some doubt about what reality is."
It's personal stuff, Jeck's work, but that's what he likes about it. The most intensely personal aspects of his art, he has found, holds a universal resonance for others.
"I don't want to make the work about me, but through me, and using me," he says. "I don't want to sound too neo-Platonic - but you're a tool."
Thursday - 2/11/99