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Artist Debbie Lawson’s Sculptures, Tapestries, and Murals Bring Wildlife Scenes to Rockefeller Center

By Julie Smith SchneiderDec 4 2023
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Inside artist Debbie Lawson’s purpose-built barn studio — set in the countryside in Kent, England among pheasants, rabbits, and horses — a storybook menagerie awaits. Lions prowl. Birds flutter, poised for landing. Tigers, pause, teeth bared. These wildlife sculptures, rendered in jesmonite blanketed in Persian carpets, harbor an aura of myth and magic, like imagery conjured from a fairytale. The works, made with a slow and manual process, reveal a dimensional being when seen from certain angles. But, when viewed head-on, the creature seems to disappear back into the surrounding rug. “I got interested in the idea of camouflage from a young age because I've always been quite shy,” Lawson tells The Center Magazine. “I identified with those animals of the wilderness that just do their own thing and disappear into the background, and then emerge quite magnificently.”

Lawson’s latest exhibition, currently installed throughout Rockefeller Center, features her first-ever lion sculptures (made specifically for this installation) and marks her New York City debut. With enchanting, gothic undertones, the show fuses eclectic influences: domestic furnishings, architecture, camouflage, personal histories, classic literature, wilderness, the sublime. On view through January 15, this show is the latest installment of Art in Focus, a public art series showcasing works by contemporary artists, produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

For this presentation, Lawson drew inspiration from lions that appear in artworks throughout Rockefeller Center, including architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie’s Arms of England, which depicts a trio of gilded lions carved above the 50th Street entrance of 620 Fifth Avenue. Just around the corner, inside 45 Rockefeller Plaza’s three vitrines, Lawson’s site-specific installation echoes that grouping of royal animals: Three velvety, regal lions hold court, with big, padded paws and wise faces framed with a spiky, crown-like mane. Each lion, covered with a contrasting color of carpet (red, white, blue) with a tassel tail, strikes a different pose. One bears its teeth, mid-roar. In an alcove nearby, a deer sits with tucked legs in gentle repose on a slate blue-and-cream tasseled rug, lending the lobby’s dark green marble a fabled, forest-like air. A similar, stately stag seems to sprout from a carpet and stands sentry in the entryway of 30 Rock.

Murals printed on vinyl, displayed throughout the campus, display scenes and close-ups of Lawson’s signature sculptures of fauna (wild boars, tigers, bears, stags, kangaroos) enveloped in fuzzy carpet, seeming to summon these majestic beasts from the shapes and symbols woven into the rug’s patterns.

To Lawson, her artworks double as windows into her imagination. “We've all got our version of the world in our heads, our understanding of the world,” the artist says. “This is me opening up my understanding of the world for other people to step in, if they care to, and enjoy a bit of magic.”

Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1966, Lawson grew up in an artistic family. Her mother was a musician, her father a doctor and woodturner. Her grandfather was an inventor, and her brother is a musician. Reading picture books and folktales, writing and illustrating her own stories, drawing, and painting were regular activities of Lawson’s daily childhood life. “I don't remember ever not doing art. It's just what I did. It was innate. And I never thought about it in terms of a career,” she says. “As a little kid, I'd go and knock on the door and say, ‘Can Josephine come out to draw with me?’ And that's just what we did.”

Drawn to storytelling, Lawson initially studied literature and pursued journalism for a few years before shifting her primary attention to visual art. She earned degrees from two London institutions: a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins and an MA in Sculpture from the Royal College of Art. A career turning point came in 2018 when artist-curator Grayson Perry included her 8-foot-tall work, titled Red Bear, in the Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition. Her sculpture was a hit. Drawing an outpouring of interest and going viral on social media, this brush with fame led to new commissions and shows. Lawson says, “Suddenly all this stuff started happening, like the universe opened up for my bear.”

Bringing her art to Rockefeller Center represents a dream realized for Lawson. As a kid, she thought maybe she’d be a doctor like her dad — or a window dresser. “Doing the vitrines in the Rockefeller Center is a great fantasy for me,” she says, “especially for the holiday season, when people are passing through and they're open to the magic of the season. It's quite nice to try to add to that magic and joy.” Installing her work in the Center’s storied halls, which have been embedded with art since the start, brings another layer of excitement for her. “It's such a wonderful opportunity,” Lawson says. “To be part of the more contemporary history of Rockefeller Center feels like a great honor.”

Debbie Lawson’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through January 15, 2024. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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