Folded in his lap, peeking out from his flannel sleeves, are the two agents of junior Isaac Dell’s creativity: his hands.
Though Dell started sculpting just a year ago, he’s already placed in multiple competitions. Last year, his bust of Abraham Lincoln placed first in the fall student showcase and his female figure placed third in the spring student showcase — and his half-size male figure placed first in Hillsdale’s annual thematic competition, Stages of Life.
Dell also recently entered his male figure into the SculptureX Regional Undergraduate Exhibition, hosted by Whitdel Arts in Detroit. Dell’s piece was one of 20 submissions selected.
When Dell first arrived at Hillsdale College, he thought his talents were more geared toward mathematics and building, rather than design and art. As a freshman, Dell planned to pursue a physics major.
“I like products and I like design, so I thought maybe I’d like to do something with engineering,” Dell said. “I started out here with physics and thought about following that up with engineering school afterward.”
But when he registered for Sculpture I in the fall of his sophomore year, Dell changed his mind. In a mix of creative energy and natural talent, his sculpting career took off.
“It was clear pretty early in the semester that Isaac had unusual talent,” Associate Professor of Art Anthony Frudakis said. “It was not only the fact that he is talented, but also that he’s enthusiastic about sculpting, and how he had lots of questions.”
Dell soon declared an art major.
“I always knew he would need to select a major that would allow him to be working in an environment where his creativity could be explored,” his sister, Associate Dean of Women Rebekah Dell said. “I had a feeling sculpture would be his favorite medium and encouraged him to take his first class.”
Dell’s development as a sculptor began at a young age. Rebekah Dell remembers an innovative little Isaac building and creating while still a small boy growing up on the family’s dairy farm in Wilmington, Ohio.
“Isaac has always had a great curiosity about how things work and loved to create with his hands,” Rebekah Dell said. “If he was in the house, he was designing new Lego creations. He was always happiest outside and would build things from spare pieces of wood or other things he found in the barn or woods.”
Dell’s first creation was a chair made from leftover plywood, and his second was a rocking chair built with extra boards from a fence. The rustic rocking chair currently furnishes Dell’s room in the Suites.
“That’s where it all started, just with the wood,” Dell said. “Wood was the easiest thing to work with. We had all the tools there, and I
could use the tools myself, and it was something I could do on my own.”
As Dell entered high school and his skill level heightened, he wanted to expand to new mediums. He chose steel and snow.
Dell’s father, Randy, runs Champion Bridge Company, a steel fabrication shop. Dell utilized the shop’s steel, equipment, and expert workers as he ventured into the challenging new medium. A stool and a desk were Dell’s first steel products.
“I heated up the steel where I wanted to bend it, then made a jig that I could bend the steel around. That was all just torchwork and bending,” he said. “I had to do some welding to connect the pieces of steel.”
In the winter of his junior year of highschool, Dell started making snowmen. Unlike typical round-bodied, carrot-nosed snowmen, Dell’s creations resembled human figures. This was his first stab at figure sculpting, the very art form he would return to during his college years.
Now, he has found his niche in the sculpting department. Although he said he has dabbled in drawing, he enjoys working more in the third dimension.
“My drawings are more sketch drawings,” Dell said. “I don’t like doing a whole lot of detail work with them because I’d rather just get the idea out on paper and then go make the thing.”
The fact that he gets to work with his hands factors into Dell’s love for sculpture, but he said his passion goes beyond that element — he simply appreciates the natural beauty and proportions in human figures.
“Something Frudakis has taught me is how the golden proportion or the golden rectangle can be found throughout the face and the body,” Dell said. “It’s really neat to see how that all plays into the design of the figure. I think that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of it, just seeing that natural beauty in the figure and then trying to accentuate that in my sculpture. That’s one of the biggest challenges.”
In Sculpture I, Dell created a bust of Abraham Lincoln. A year later, Dell continues to touch up Abe in his free time.
“The others have a lot of potential, but I haven’t had enough time to work with them and really develop them,” Dell said. “It’s hard to say, ‘I’m done with this thing,’ because there’s always more to improve.”
In Sculpture II, Dell created a 36-inch female figure, and this semester, in Sculpture III, Dell is working on a life-size male figure. According to Dell, these projects reflect the strides he’s made as an artist.
“After working with the female, my eye improved and I went back to Abe and I was like, ‘What was I looking at? This thing needs so much more work!’” Dell laughed. “I didn’t capture the fleshiness of his skin or the wrinkles in his forehead. You can’t just make a line in his forehead and say it’s a wrinkle. You have to realize what’s making that crease. It’s the little things like that.”
Dell serves as his own greatest critic, which pushes him to embrace hard work. Frudakis has noticed.
“He comes into class early every day,” Frudakis said. “This has accelerated his growth as a young sculptor.”
Outside of the six hours of weekly class time, Dell sculpted a half-size male figure, without any professor help, and also sculpted a bust of his younger sister. Dell said sculpting his own sister was a unique experience.
“It’s a lot different,” Dell said. “You examine the little things you never would before. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but there are times I look at a girl’s face and think about what makes that face different from another girl’s face. It’s the different characteristics.”
Dell said professional sculpting is an option for his future career, but if he could be a professional “innovator” for the rest of his life, he would probably choose that instead.
“I want to design things,” he said. “I think ideally I’d be kind of an entrepreneur type of designer, innovator, inventor. That would be a hard way to make a living, I think. On a more practical side, professional sculpting is an option. Right now, I’m just taking sculpture as far as I can and seeing where that leads.”
Frudakis expects sculpting will take Dell far.
“Each one of his sculptures has been impressive, and as a teacher, I’m delighted to see the way his dedication and his hard work pays off with such fine pieces when he’s finished,” Frudakis said. “He’s just in the very beginning of his life as an artist, so it’s a little early to try to define his greatest works. But you can check back with him in about 20 years and see how he’s doing.”