If Dickson Carroll’s exuberant sculptures sometimes resemble buildings, there’s a reason: The sculptor is also a practicing architect. When work priorities permit a perfect balance, Carroll spends mornings in his home office designing wood sculptures or residential projects. In the afternoons, he moves to a basement workshop, turning his sculpture drawings into reality.
Having carved his own ship models as a schoolboy, Carroll considers this dual career natural. “I’ve always worked with my hands,” he says. And after working in both fields for 40 years, he finds they have much in common. “Methods of construction are similar, and architecture in its best incarnation is art.”
Carroll’s winsome, colorful sculptures bring cheer wherever they are installed. In his century-old Cleveland Park home, pieces created throughout his career mingle merrily with sedate antique furnishings. A recent mirrored work, framed in pastel orbs and organic forms, hangs in the living room not far from a sober Victorian portrait depicting an ancestor of his wife, Rives. An early cabinet he designed and built for record albums occupies one corner of the room. In a riot of patchwork colors, the larger-than-life, pointy-headed piece suggests a friendly robot, speakers embedded in its arms.
Several blocks away in a public park on Macomb Street, visitors relax on the stepped base of a neon-hued gazebo that he designed. The tree-form structure rises nearly 40 feet with decorative roof ridges that reach out protectively like sheltering branches or curled exclamation points against a leafy backdrop.
Such figurative interpretations are not intentional, according to the sculptor. “Most people are used to seeing recognizable shapes, which I see just as abstract,” he says. “I’m just drawing a shape.”
Carroll’s architectural models are literal—if hypothetical. Based on real sites, these buoyant and imaginative prototypes enchant, such as his arresting design for a refreshment kiosk on the National Mall inspired by the Smithsonian Castle building and nearby carousel. Or the model for a revised Gallery Place Metro station fitted with vaulted ceiling and drop-down letters spelling out the station’s name. Or a festive new entrance to the Cleveland Park Post Office with flags waving, all in miniature.
“These are functional ideas that are completely fanciful, since they are unlikely ever to be built full-scale,” Carroll says matter-of-factly without any hint of disappointment. “I think of these as sculptures representing an idea—‘what if?’ This is a model of what could be. The idea lives, even if it’s not done.”
Tall and trim with silver hair, Carroll speaks in measured tones and has a formal, almost academic manner that contrasts with his spirited work. He credits modern art as an early influence on his choice of bold primary colors. His admiration for pioneering modern architect Le Corbusier, who designed wood sculpture throughout his life, “gave me permission” to follow a similar path, says Carroll, acknowledging that sculptures represented a minor part of this renowned architect’s work. He had his designs produced by a wood carver in Scotland.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Carroll took studio art classes and received a master’s degree from its School of Architecture in 1966. It came as a jolt when he went to work for an architecture firm specializing in hospitals and institutions. “The creative outlet that you had in school was missing,” he recalls of that period. After three years, Carroll started his own architectural practice. When business was slow, he began making sculpture and has never stopped.
In both fields Carroll favors traditional methods without computer-design assistance. “I find it just as efficient doing sketching, drawing and drafting,” says Carroll, who purposely keeps business simple by working on his own.
Given the complicated compositions of his pieces, many expect a workshop full of sophisticated tools. There too, he says, “I’m low-tech.” His sculptures begin as colored-pencil sketches, which he measures and blows up himself to full-scale drawings. For mirrored works, he traces the drawing onto a sheet of birch plywood, a strong material that won’t split or crack. He uses a hand-held jigsaw to cut out shapes along curves, and a rasp (resembling a kitchen grater with holes) to round edges. Pockets are routed for fitted pieces, which are spaced at different depths to create multiple dimensions. Some are reflected in mirrors, fabricated by a glass company from Carroll’s template. Finally, he glues and brushes each piece with acrylic paint mixed with varnish.
One complex construction completed in his studio extends four-and-a-half feet long and nearly four-feet high. Called "Procession," it is headed for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, where an earlier work by Carroll—a full-size painted doghouse topped by a decorative turret—resides.
With three architectural projects underway in the Washington area, Carroll spends less time in his workshop. Still, his sculptural vision comes into play on some jobs, including one for a couple he met at a gallery exhibit of his work. “They said they’d love to have a whole house in the style of my art. Seven years later they came and asked me to design their dream house.” That residence in Northwest DC stretches toward the sky with three towers crowned by what Carroll calls “roof décor”—multi-hued, welded-steel weather vanes that move with the wind.
Carroll’s next sculpture, a commission, will merge two of his earlier themes—natural landscapes and mobile constructions moving on strings. He’s considering developing this fusion as a new direction. “The whole idea is not to repeat yourself,” says the 71-year-old sculptor/architect. “Then it’s no fun.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. See more of Dickson Carroll’s work at dicksoncarroll.com. His sculpture is represented in Washington by Addison/Ripley Fine Art; addisonripleyfineart.com; 202-338-5180.