Gail Folwell needs to sculpt.
One class was all it took to send the successful designer careening down a career path she’d never envisioned. Having signed up for a one-day Intro to Oil-Based Clay class at the zoo, Folwell sculpted the easiest animal she could find—a hippo—and then “freaked out.”
Unlike painting, illustration, printmaking, or design, Folwell said she instantly had “a thousand things in my head that I need(ed) to manifest. Up until then my art was responsive, client needs or I had to search for subject matter that intrigued me. This medium was so natural, it was too exciting to deny.”
While exhilarating, the leap into a new career came with some surprises. In her first night class, Folwell sculpted a nude female from life. “It looked just right, proportion, scale, gesture”—exactly like her subject. Enter, the teacher. “So, you can sculpt, but she’s DEAD,” he said. This was a startling lesson that would have lasting implications. “You’re not sculpting what she is,” he told her. “You’re sculpting what you see. You have to feel the essence that is of interest to you.” So Folwell started making what was in her head.
And then she needed galleries. “Finding design clients was easy,” Folwell remembers. “There was a fast pace, camaraderie, business, deadlines, money to be made… it was fun.” Making art for only herself and putting her artistic and financial fate in the hands of her galleries didn't have the same allure. So she set her sights on commissions and public art, where she could once again identify projects, choreograph concepts from beginning to end, navigate the pressures of money and deadlines, and build relationships with clients.
The emotional component Folwell had lacked at the start turned out to be career-defining. Anyone can learn a craft, she believes. But “to move from being really good at your craft to creating art is the point at which you transcend what it looks like and start to manifest what it feels like. Emotive experiences drive the design and handling of the material.” When she started sculpting what she loves, her career took off.
Folwell's masterpieces can now be found enhancing spaces and stirring up feelings all over the country and increasingly across the globe. Some of her most beloved include ‘The Edge,’ a dynamic downhill skier that pays tribute to Vail, Colorado’s Olympic and World Cup Athletes; ‘Tête à Tête,’ two figures housed in the Denver Art Museum that evoke unique interpretations depending on the viewer’s perspective; and ‘The NFL Draft,’ a larger-than-life offensive line postured on the Pro Football Hall of Fame parade route in Canton, Ohio.
Obviously, Folwell is passionate about sports. In addition to dabbling in everything from tennis and gymnastics to ski racing and professional mountain biking, she’s been marveling at athletes for as long as she can remember. When she was young, she made and sold sports-inspired wire sculptures to her parents’ friends (revealing her earliest glimpses of entrepreneurship). Standing next to any of her sculptures of athletes today, it’s clear that Folwell has a deep-seated “appreciation for body mechanics and kinesiology, and what the human machine can do." The fun for her is figuring out how to sculpt the human body “so it looks like it’s not stopped but loaded, emotionally and physically.”
Fortunately, Folwell doesn’t have to venture far to find inspiration. Ever since moving Folwell Studios to Black Lab Sports a year and a half ago, she’s had an abundance of athletically-minded people to turn to: the men of Revo PT and their sporty clients; entrepreneurs from startups like isplack, ONX, and CAN-ICE; and individuals from interns all the way up to founders with backgrounds in competitive (even professional) sports. CEO JP O’Brien’s commitment to bringing together left- and right-brained people in one space, to Folwell, creates “a totally symbiotic relationship.” She and fine arts painter Will Day balance out the logical, scientific, and business-oriented individuals on the other side, and together they comprise a powerful team. “Everybody here is a creative with an end goal to manifest something they have imagined,” Folwell said. “We all make products that enhance the sport experience. I do it with art and these guys do it with innovative equipment.”
While maybe the most recognizable, sport is just one of several themes that emerge throughout Folwell’s work. When prompted, I couldn’t come up with one she hasn’t yet explored: birth, death, love, anger, passion, animal—they’re all in her repertoire. Her latest project, Handle the Art (a collection of pulls, knobs, and door handles meant to “change the way you think about cabinet hardware”), demonstrates her incredible range. Abstract faces, muscular bodies, headless torsos, and communicative hands are all part of the collection and are no doubt prompting many conversations in the rooms they adorn.
While disparately themed, Folwell’s pieces are all connected on a deep level. With a visible platform, she feels a sense of responsibility to affect people positively and connect with others through her work. Put simply, Folwell’s core purpose is to Inspire, teach and heal with art. In one season of life, that might mean a memorial sculpture following a tragedy like the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks, or the death of a parent. In another, that might mean a celebratory piece featuring a freestyle swimmer or a giant pitcher greeting ballpark guests. No matter what Folwell feels moved to create, she believes, “If it comes from my soul and it goes into the art… that light can affect the person who’s seeing it.”
For me, the impact is more than emotional; it’s visceral. While admiring her sports sculptures especially, I find myself generating pre-race butterflies, or replaying a special race memory, or urgently wanting to test my body’s limits. The essence of her subjects is present and intense. But don’t don’t take my word for it. Visit Folwell Studios inside Black Lab Sports or any of the public spaces that house her work and let the masterpieces speak for themselves. I can’t predict your personal response, but I guarantee you’ll feel something—be it connected or joyful or motivated or sentimental. That my experience may be different from yours, based on where we come from and how we interpret the world, is precisely Folwell’s point.
Find Folwell’s amazing portfolio at FolwellStudios.com.