Smiling Artist

Lawrence McLaughlin, 48, painter, sculptor, part-time resident of France, and relentlessly cheerful former Minnesotan, has plenty to be happy about. His paintings and concrete monumental sculptures (his "babies") are featured in galleries and private collections the world over, but are created in his "compound," a vast hunk of rambling desert on the outskirts of Phoenix.

Why sculpt naked ladies out of concrete? I kind of almost don't have a choice now, because they're what I'm known for. They're my main forte. They're actually monumental sculptures with aluminum and bronze, and lately I've been using Bullseye glass to depict their souls. It started back when I studied at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and I was sculpting in wood and stone. There was a professor there who was really interested in what I was showing, and he worked in concrete. I ended up studying with him the four years I was there, and although I fight with painting and glass and pretty much every other medium, I have a blast with concrete. I've started inserting these bits of colorful glass into them, and the whole juxtaposition of pretty glass and concrete, which people think of as an unattractive material, is exciting to me.

Parting can be such sweet sorrow: When I first started doing art, it was hard to let go of pieces sometimes. Especially when I'd go to the home of the collector who bought my piece and just go, "What in the hell is this? I don't know if I want my stuff displayed here!" But now I have so many finished pieces, it's great to be able to get rid of stuff. Anymore, it's water off my back.

The hazards of found art: I made a New Year's resolution to get rid of stuff. It's hard for me because I'll see stuff and I'll just want it. Garbage, metal, a cute chair with a skeleton painted on it. See that pile? That's 800 blue bottles that I'm going to make a wall out of. And I've been saving eggshells for a year because I want to glue them all over a table and chair set. So I keep accumulating stuff, and in the end you end up living in a dump.

On the joys of living at the edge of the city: Finding this place was a total fluke. I wanted acreage, and I wanted to stay under $100,000. I looked everywhere because I knew nothing about the Valley. I was attracted to how ethnic it is way out here -- very Hispanic, and there are cowboys out here. I prefer their company to dealing with middle-class suburban America. And the best thing is I can be sawing at 3 in the morning and no one's going to say anything -- lights on, music, a drill going, an electric saw, and no complaints.

Proof that art can pay the gas bill: I guess I'm represented by about 12 galleries in the U.S., and there are about twice as many in Europe that I deal with. Artists ask me, "How do you get to that point?" and I'll tell you, it's a lot of work, and some of it is crappy, repetitive work. You have to deliver stuff, trade stuff out, inventory it, push it into the van, and move it from one gallery to another. It's been 20 years, though. If I haven't figured it out by now, I shouldn't be doing it. You know?

On living in France: For some people, it's like I live on Mars half the year. They can't imagine what it's like or why I live there. But after I graduated in Paris, I said, "Okay, I want to stay here." It's a socialist country that gave me opportunities I would never have had here, never, ever, ever. In art school, all the supplies were given to us; I could make 10 10-foot sculptures, and all the materials were there. And medical care was free -- let's face it, you're a young student, and the government is looking after you while you figure out what you want to do. Who wouldn't want to stay? Before that, in America, it had always been about trying to be an artist, or ending up with my stuff in crafts fairs. And everyone telling me, "Oh, art is a very nice pastime, but you'd better figure out a real job." In France, it's a respected profession. People get it when you say, "I'm an artist."