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Turning loss into art: Wempen inspired by sister
This piece, titled "Loss," is a series of nine torsos depicting the relentless progression of breast cancer that took the life of Wempen's sister, Michelle Duty-Wempen, seven years ago. It won a top prize at the University of Wyoming juried student art show.

Turning loss into art

Apr 1, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Riverton native Andy Wempen watched his sister, Michelle Duty-Wempen, battle and finally succumb to breast cancer in April 2007.

The experience affected him and influenced his artwork.

"I'm presenting this idea of breast cancer and what it does, the loss. I lost my sister to breast cancer," Wempen said about his latest award-winning artwork.

The University of Wyoming student, who is student-teaching at Campbell County High School's North Campus before earning his degree, created a piece that was influenced by his sister.

Wempen illustrated the devastating progression breast cancer takes on the body by using a series of nine torso molds affixed with white doilies. The pristine white doilies surrounding the breast molds grow darker with each succeeding figure.

"You go through this progression of deteriorating," he said. "Eventually it gets bigger until the ninth cast is pretty much deteriorated until there's not much left."

The artwork depicts "not only losing somebody but having the loss of a breast and, inevitably, the loss of life," he said.

"Loss" was one of two that earned awards for Wempen at the University of Wyoming's annual juried student exhibition earlier this year.

The piece won the student art league cash award and the David Reif sculpture award, while another, "Removal of the Emotional to Physical," earned the prestigious president's office purchase award.

His award-winning art conveys deeply emotional messages that resonate within the 26-year-old, who was better known as a high school wrestling star than an artist as he was growing up in Riverton.

"Those two pieces I got in were pretty personal pieces from where I worked -- and of course the loss of my sister," he said.

"I guess human emotion I have, one, for hope and just some of these things the human body goes through, the mental state as well."

While "Loss" takes influence from his sister, "Removal of the Emotional to Physical" bears a pain he witnessed at a previous job.

"It was based off the idea where I actually worked," Wempen said. "I was working at a treatment facility. Some people that cut themselves. They want to focus on the physical pain and eliminate the emotional pain."

The piece is made of cast iron arms made from plaster molds of his own limbs. The arms have lines that represent the scars people have within.

"There's always this, like, mental tie to all of the pieces that I do as well," Wempen said. "And where the body's been so has the mind."

Linking the body and soul is something Wempen expresses in his art.

"I like to create real art," he said. "I think that's another reason why I work with figurative work. It's real, it's the human body. People can recognize it's the human form, something from the human body.

"So I like to present things that are real that maybe somebody really doesn't look at but it asks questions: This stuff really does happen, this stuff really does go on."

Creating art influenced by his sister is a new achievement for Wempen, who plans to earn a bachelor's of fine arts degree and possibly attend graduate school.

"I never really thought I was going to make a piece for my sister," he said. "I always wanted to, but I never thought I had the ability to make a piece on an artistic level that would do that feeling or emotion justice.

"So I was always worried my art would never be good enough, at this point in my career, that my art would never be worth it."

He can thank one of his art professors for pushing him to reach new heights. Wempen said the professor told him, "Andy, you'll never be ready."

The message being that he would always strive to be better without ever knowing when the time was right.

"So I dove into it, and it worked out great," he said. "I'm very proud of that piece. It was something that worked out great."

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