Bellingham artist’s bust of renowned music maestro finds place in Kennedy Center

Upon seeing one of her creations installed at the Kennedy Center, sculptor Audrey Roll of Bellingham says she feels like a real-life Eliza Doolittle from “My Fair Lady.”

“I even have my own Henry Higgins,” she says, referring to the classic charmer who molded Eliza into a lady.“That’s just how I feel, because my husband (Norman Shapiro) turned me into a sculptor because of a project he wanted to do shortly after we became reacquainted 25 years ago,” she says.

At that point, Roll already had enjoyed a three-decade career in commercial art. She had been sculpting only about six years when her work caught the eye of magazine publisher Austin Kiplinger.

“He commissioned me to do a large bust of world-renowed maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, a famed cellist from Russia who became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra,” she said.

The bust was originally installed at Kiplinger’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., when Roll was working in the area. But with the passing in April of “Slava” (as Rostropovich was known), Roll’s sculpture was eligible for one of the highest honors available to an artist — installation at the Kennedy Center on the box-tier level.

When the Washington Post covered the installation concert Nov. 29, the paper called Roll’s work “a wonderful bronze that captures his ebullience.”

Roll, an outgoing 70-something who vows “I’ll never retire,” and Shapiro recently relocated from La Conner to Bellingham.

Question: Audrey, even though you’ve had many exhibits in museums, you must have been truly thrilled to attend the installation at the Kennedy Center.

Roll: I love this man (Shapiro) and he put me onto sculpture. He deserved to have a fine moment like this. He really is my own Henry Higgins. Mr. Kiplinger originally commissioned my work with the thought of the Kennedy Center, but a work isn’t eligible for installation until the subject has passed away.

Shapiro: She may not admit it, but she was very proud. You know, I feel like Pygmalion (the George Bernard Shaw play upon which “My Fair Lady” is based). I got Audrey going on sculpture, and man, did she ever take off!”

Q: Audrey, I’m intrigued by this painting you did. I know this place.

Roll: That’s right, it’s my painting of Ford’s Theatre (where Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865). I was commissioned to do the painting in the 1960s and it hangs in Ford’s Theatre. I had a gallery for 10 years in the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.

Q: Surely, you must have had a classic art education of the kind so many artists had while growing up in New York City.

Roll: I studied at the High School of Music and Art and then the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in Manhattan. I spent many years in commercial art as a fashion artist, layout designer and art director. I worked for a variety of firms in New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and Washington, D.C. I eventually became art director at Hart, Schaffner and Marx.

Q: I get the feeling your creations and career could fill four or five newspaper stories.

Roll: I still absolutely love to paint. I’ve done so many oil paintings and watercolors. I love art in many forms. I love to watch people everywhere. Now my ambition is to do portraits in Bellingham.

Q: It’s so unusual, you became a sculptor about the time you turned 50.

Roll: That was all Norman’s doing. But I realized that if you could draw and paint, you could learn sculpture if you really wanted to. You know, I really believe you can do just about anything you really set your mind to, but I also had Norman’s great inspiration.

Q: How did you meet Norman?

Roll: I originally met him at his mother’s home in Jamaica, N.Y., when I was 17. We didn’t date or anything like that. That had to wait until we became reacquainted (at another family event) in 1982. He paid attention to me when I was a girl, but this time, he finally “paid attention” to me!

Q: How did Norman get you involved in sculpture?

Roll: He wanted a bust of a favorite composer, Gustav Mahler, and he convinced me I could do it. So I did! Norman taught himself to make molds and I created the sculpture.

Shapiro: Look, here it is — Mahler in all his glory. We still have it. It’s a sentimental beauty, isn’t it?