The bronze Sankofa Kore statue by sculptor Christopher Smith is magnetic. Based on the Greek and Egyptian sculptural ideal, the nearly life-size work - to be installed this month in the sculpture garden of Chestnut Hill's Woodmere Art Museum - seems to borrow more from the ancient male form the kouros than the cheerful female kore as it moves assertively, unsmilingly forward.
But it definitely was inspired by a woman - or two: the subject of poet Robert Creeley's "Kore" ("Her hair held earth/Her eyes were dark") and a Philadelphia model, Kelicia "Kandy" Pitts.
Pitts has become something of a local muse, that mythical goddess of inspiration.
"A muse is a tricky concept, conjuring the close physical and intellectual relationship that existed between Rodin and Camille Claudel, or the pragmatic/spiritual one between Aristide Maillol and Dina Vierny," Smith notes. "But yes, Kelicia is a muse because her body and presence have spawned ideas for me beyond just Sankofa Kore."
Henry Bermudez, a Venezuelan painter who with Pitts created a mixed-media photographic collage called Una Nueva Posibilidad in 2013 for Crane Arts, says of her: "She has the spirit, intelligence, desire and the interior and exterior beauty that makes her a great Model, with a capital M."
Smith and Bermudez are just two of the Philadelphia artists to utilize Pitts' inner and outer charms. The painters of Studio Incamminati, photographer Leah Macdonald, and poster/printmaker David Freese are among the others who have made Pitts their muse, to say nothing of the 21 photographers who snapped her, and only her, over six months in 2006 as part of the massive, highly publicized The Kandy Project.
"The Kandy Project changed my life," says Pitts, 37, who previously had done fashion and lifestyle work. It led her, searching for something bigger, to decide to work with fine art photographers, and to collaborate rather than merely posing. In doing so, she says, "I learned a lot, gave a lot, and became a respected fine-arts model within the Philadelphia arts community as well as learning the ins and outs of the biz."
That's important, as Pitts sees her future in art consulting and curating. Currently in her junior year at Moore College of Art & Design, she is a curatorial studies major, minoring in business and 3-D media.
Being at Moore, she says, has made her more aware of the collaborative role of the model in art history. "For example," she says, "Lee Miller was a muse for Picasso and Man Ray. Ray and she created solarization, a photographic process considered a mistake from the slightest light shining into the darkroom, yet its images were aesthetically beautiful. I used that same process when working with [photographer] David Freese."
Being a muse means being a part of a team, an instigator, not just someone stripping bare (which she does a lot), striking a pose, and going home, she says. "Artists don't need a muse for inspiration, but when one comes along they can't deny it. I struggle with the fact of me being 'beautiful,' but think that my beauty is deeper than aesthetic. It's more about my burning desire to help people and myself at the same time. Artists feel that."
Sometimes an artist's vision isn't specific, but the desire to work with Pitts is.
"When we met, and later when we became friends, I asked her to be my model for a new project which wasn't quite fully formed," says Bermudez, who went beyond the conventions of painting into hand-cut photography, something unusual for him. "I cannot talk for other artists who have worked with her, but I have said to Kelicia that since I have been working in this project with her, a new path in my art has been opened."
Sculptor Smith agrees. Pitts says Sankofa Kore needed to exist - the spiritual reason behind their collaboration - and Smith says, "The model, the muse, instigates the sculpture."
He chooses models who sing to his senses. "I never know who it will be, or what, or how exactly they sing, but I know it when I feel it," he says. "I take those sensations and find an appropriate pose and form answering that call."
For Sankofa Kore, the form ("the anatomy") reads as natural and the pose is caught between steps, weight shifting from one foot to another.
"It is an exotic visage and a rigid, ancient pose, whose form is treated in a contemporary way which brings the past form forward, a Sankofa notion," says Smith. Sankofa, from the Akan people of Ghana, means going back to reclaim one's past, in order to move into the future.
"We're excited to receive Chris' gift," says William R. Valerio, director and chief curatorial voice of the Woodmere Museum. "He's an important realist figurative artist, a genuine Philadelphia storyteller from a long line of local figurative sculptors creating deeply meaningful experience."
Valerio admires how Smith brought together Western and non-Western traditions for Sankofa Kore, and though he knows nothing of Pitts or her artist collaborators he sees Smith's rendering of his muse as positive and radiantly sensual. "You don't have to be smiling to be upbeat," he says. "It's obvious she's saying that she's strong and beautiful."
Pitts has started creating her own work - sketches, collages, clay sculptures - but does not include herself in it.