2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!


Monday, December 30, 2013

An Interview with ISAIAH ZAGAR: Mosaic Muralist; "Mirror, Mirror on the wall....."

photograph by Judith Zausner
Isaiah’s Peace Corps roots and his art training at Pratt Institute are the subtle influences of his city wide mosaic murals in Philadelphia.  His most famous project, Magic Gardens, is a mosaic space created with broken mirrors and other recycled elements that surface walls and floors and are indeed magical.

I’ve learned that your first creative awareness, perhaps explosion, was when you were three years old. You were taught to color within lines in your coloring book but then promptly took the crayon off the page, to move it along the table, wall, and refrigerator. So from a primary lesson on boundaries you immediately pushed outside the boundaries. Perhaps this was your first mural of memory?

I don’t even know if I would consider that a mural.  Just feeling the textures of everything and being excited by the visual quality that was presented and that it was different than what was there already. It changed the paradigm and changed the way things looked.  Could you call it a mural? I don’t think you could call it a mural.  You could call it a place where empty spaces were filled with ideas and rituals. But in my case it was just a child scribbling, a graffiti process, a naming that said “I’m here … I’m doing this thing”. And of course it changed everything.  And of course my mother flipped out; she was appalled at what I had done and that was a fantastic eye opener for me. I saw the amazing changes that went on in her from seeing what I had done.

You can’t call it art but it was a creative experience.  It was to color … what I call total embellishment … the continuing and continuing without borders.

It was a moment in time that was very powerful to me and continues to resonate … I have very strong visual memories of the actual event.

After graduating from Pratt Institute and subsequently working as a Peace Corps Craft Developer, you had a personal crisis. You had a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide. Yet you turned this around when you began putting discards on the wall with cement and began your mural art. It is ironic that you have rescued these broken bits of mirrors ("My favorite material to use is mirrors because mirrors reflect the present") and pottery (began with his wife’s imported pottery and Eyes Gallery retail store) and elevated them to a new status and purpose just as the process of doing so brought you out of your mental health problems. Do you have thoughts on this?

I wasn’t broken a bit … I was broken a lot.

Your description of it is very clear.  I don’t know what more I can add.
I was given a scholarship to take a class with Emanuel Bromberg, an artist and a painter. He saw something in my work and took me to visit the work of Clarence Schmidt.
Clarence Schmidt was an artist who was not an artist; he was a man who just created with discards. I was brought to see the folk art environment or the vernacular environment of Clarence Schmidt and it knocked me for a loop, my heart began to beat very rapidly.  The way I tell the story … there were no young women around so what does a 19 year old man say about his heart palpitating so fast at seeing something that was outrageous and different from anything that I had ever seen.  I just wanted to be there for a while.  I immediately climbed the fence and I went inside the structure and I was just knocked out by its insanity … its absolute insanity of what I had known to be art.  In fact I couldn’t even call it art … I didn’t call it art … I was just knocked out.  

After the nervous breakdown, I had to rebuild myself as an artist. How could I be an artist after a nervous breakdown? That was in 1969 and I was 28 years old. I needed to find a place where I can be a Clarence, not worried about the marketplace, but living the life of the artist. I needed to find something so devastated that I can build it up from scratch and that became South Street. 

I only wanted to create art … I didn’t want to deal with the real world.  I created a fantasy world – an art object that I created a la Clarence Schmidt with the same kind of impetus – using found objects, derelict materials, free materials, materials that I scavenged the world over. 

Last year over 60 thousand people visited Magic Gardens and more have traveled through the city to see the other mosaic murals. 

Your flagship mural, Magic Gardens on South Street in Philadelphia, is an extraordinary and large assemblage of many broken and recycled elements plus your own poetic and artful expressions ("I built this sanctuary to be inhabited by my ideas and my fantasies.") How do you maintain it? Does the weather impact it?

Yes the weather does majorly impact it.  The piece changes rapidly from year to year.  It has intrinsic in it a death knoll and whether we can stave off the death knoll forever is not clear because I was not and am not a structural engineer.  I worked with intuition and worked without much regard to the longevity of the project … always thinking that it was like abstract expressionism … that I could keep changing it – that it was ever changing. A project that could be continually reinvented – not only by myself but also by other people … that it could be kept moving and changing rather than a piece of art that was static.  I’m not sure about that anymore, whether the soul of it can remain intact with so many other hands involved in it.

Your art gives purpose to the recycled movement. As an honorary Dumpster Diver, you have inspired artists and aspiring artists to view trashed objects in a different way. Though you don’t go in the dumpsters yourself, your network of dumpster diver donors keep you actively sourced. How do you store all of these pieces until they are used?

Well I have a garage here that is useful and I have a big building in South Philadelphia that I have been working on for the past 7 years and it is a useful place to store a lot.  I’ve also run out of the energy to do reconnaissance missions to get materials.  I have essentially slowed down to a non-work stop, basically because I have so much that I have done.

I thought that I was skirting the problems of storing art because I was making the art in the street and when I was doing paintings on canvas I didn’t use stretch bars so that I could roll them up or I was even doing paintings on rice paper … that was as easy as pie … I would paint a big painting with several pieces of paper and I could roll it up and store.  However, no one was seeing any of these things … they were made and stored … even I didn’t look at some of them again.  I was having this tremendous problem – although I didn’t know it – of over producing.

The amount of work I have done is staggering. I was able to give one of the larger pieces to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) because it related to Anne DD’ Harnoncourt. I made this piece called ‘The Futurist’ because she was very involved in a show of the futurists. I made a big 10 x 12 feet mosaic that was accepted by the PMA as a gift.   I thought this would be the beginning of the possibility of moving these big panel mosaics, some as big as the wall. 
And your work is all about exploring boundaries on different levels. In creating mosaic murals, you use lots of broken mirrors and glass; those pieces have changed from their original state to one with broken boundaries. Then these pieces are placed in assemblage to create a mural where the boundaries merge and disappear with other elements and they radically challenge conceptions of what a building wall should look like. Do you consciously explore boundaries in making art?

Well the art that I make in the City on Walls have boundaries now. They actually didn’t have boundaries when I was able to do complete walls, the complete building … then I never thought about boundaries in fact.  In this case, where we are sitting in my studio; any place where I looked out onto where I had control over I embellished and they didn’t have rectangular boundaries.  But when I do the murals in the City or on panels they do have boundaries and they do have themes.

I just finished one for a fitness center on between 7th & 8th on Reed Street and it’s a long mural – about 200 feet long by 7 feet high and it has its boundaries, it doesn’t go all the way up through the building,  it just has its boundaries on one level.  Although it has figures that begin at the feet sometimes and only end at the middle of their bodies … you can imagine that it could go to the next level.

Magic Gardens is in the center of a big city and it’s on a street that is known for its idiosyncrasy, it’s movement of hippies and how they changed the way people looked at things.  It has an identity that people want to see before they even know about Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.  They want to come to the street so they do happen upon the garden and if it was in some outlaying area that didn’t have that reputation then it wouldn’t have the power that it has … the environment … the placement of an art object is so important.

You have completed over 130 outdoor murals AND, in doing that, covered more than 50,000 square feet of Philadelphia. This is an enormous art legacy. Now at 74, have you scaled your art to less physical installations? What’s on your horizon?

I’ve just completed small pieces for a show of small pieces but I’m not enamored of the challenges of small pieces.

I don’t know what the future will bring at all.  I have rebounded several times from complete breakdown failures [mental that pushed into the physical]. Now I’m in another one; I’m not whole yet and I don’t know if I can get whole.   And so I can’t prognosticate about the future without the feelings of the present.  That is how one thinks about the future. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Interview with JUDITH LEIBER: From Survivor to Artisan to Fashion Icon

As a young Hungarian immigrant, Judith brought her skills, tools and passion for making handbags. Now over a half century later, her extraordinary handbags are in the  collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Institution, The Victoria and Albert Museum and also in their own unique museum on Long Island.

In Hungary, as a young adult during World War II, you and your family struggled to stay alive. Now many decades later, you have achieved remarkable success both professionally through your business and personally with a marriage to Gus (Gerson)spanning more than 60 years.  Do you reflect on those very difficult years and your life journey?

 I try not to think about those days because it was really very difficult. We went through so much in five years of war but we are happy that we got over that and achieved success in the handbag business.  I was very lucky that Gus brought me here.

Since Jews were forbidden to study in a Hungarian university and you could not return to King’s college in London where you had just begun matriculation, you stayed in Budapest to be with your family and learn a trade.  You said “Hitler put me in the handbag business” and so your career started in Hungary. Can you imagine that your creativity, drive and technical acumen could have been channeled successfully at that time in a different profession?

Yes, Jews were forbidden to study in Hungarian University. And so my parents sent me to King’s College in London to learn chemistry with the thought that I would work in cosmetics because I had an aunt and uncle in Romania who made an enormous success with a cream called Flora Cream. 

But funnily enough, I never got to really study at King’s College.  I just passed the matriculation and then returned to Hungary in the summer so that I wouldn’t waste my father’s money for the time that I wasn’t there.  I never returned to England because of the war.

You created a vast collection of the most exceptional artful handbags over many decades. Growing up did you realize that you had a creative flair? An entrepreneurial soul? Were you interested in fashion?

Well, I had a creative flair I suppose, but I didn’t really know anything about business although my dad had been in business all his life. He worked for a big bank and was very successful there. And he taught me how to handle things when you get into business; what you have to do in order to make a profit.  I learned that from him. 

I always liked fashion but in Hungary there weren’t that many things that you could worry about with that.  My sister and I had two Lenci dolls that my parents got us in Italy.  And, when we were little, we even had paintings of each one of the dolls.  They were both girl dolls, and they were just wonderful.  But after what happened during the war, either they got lost, or we never worried about it after that.  You didn’t have the time to worry about things like that.
When I came to the States, I was, of course, very interested in what people were doing in the clothing business.  In the very beginning, I made bags right away that I thought would be successful to wear with clothes.  That was very fortunate. 

You worked for different handbag companies until your husband, Gus, persuaded you to open your own business in 1963. First ladies and royalty have enjoyed wearing your bags as a fashion statement of status.

I worked for the most expensive handbag company.  When I went there, I went to the head of the pocketbook makers’ union, and I said to the guy “Whatever, you’ll send me up there, you’ll see.”  He said, “You’re not going to make it.”  But, you know, I thought, well, if they send me there, I’m going to stick there.  I’ll be all right.  And they had a pattern maker, a sample maker, who was the head of it.  And I was his assistant when I got there.  But after a while, he got very sick and couldn’t work anymore and they gave me the job. So I was doing everything.  First, I was just making all the patterns and the pieces.  And then, I even ran the floor at the end.  

I worked there 14 years until 1960.  Then I went to work for Morris Moskowitz for a couple of years.  And my husband said, “You’re not going to work for these schnooks anymore.  You are, we are, going into business.”  Of course, I was scared to death, and we were scared to death about every problem that we ever had.  But, on the other hand, we made some wonderful bags, so we were a big success.  It was a small business, but we were very fortunate.  It took a lot of work, but we did it.  We worked very hard. 

I also used a lot of antique frames that I copied and made animal bags: dogs, cats, bears and many shapes that were just somewhat classical.  And I made a very wonderful Tiffany style bag from one of the Tiffany windows in the Met and some other little bags that were also based on Tiffany which were very nice looking. One of the original Tiffany bags that I made was for Laura Bush for her second inaugural. The Pop Art I did was very successful; we sold a lot of them. 

Which handbags or styles are you particularly happy with and do you wear them?

One of my favorite bags is a chatelaine, its a little purse shape which started me on making bags with rhinestones in 1967.  It’s still my favorite because it put me into the rhinestone business. 

I have a very small collection at this point but you know if I ever wanted to wear a bag, we have a lot of bags upstairs.  We keep bags in cases very nicely put away, and I could always borrow one of my bags from the collection if I wanted to wear it. 

I designed over 3500 bags and own about 1600 of them.

Your bags span a vast range of extraordinary styles in elegant materials from leather to satin to metal (and rhinestone based) and a unique range of styles from classic to formal to Pop Art. Which designs have been the most challenging to implement?

All the designs I ever made started with an idea and then I made all the patterns for them.  I used all leathers: alligator, lizard, snakes, calves, suede, satin, oriental, obis, Indian ribbons from Mumbai. The Indians had these black robes that had colorful borders and we bought those borders.  And we put the silk or leather in between each ribbon and made it up like that.  They were absolutely wonderful after we finished them.

When I started out, we had four people.  Then we got a little bigger and had 32 workers in the factory.  After 1967 we started to make fully beaded bags, not just the one that was originally done.  I had a man who used to do the rhinestones for us and when that company went out of business, I took the best girl they had and she taught a lot of the other girls how to work on things like that.  We taught them how to do the beading and it worked out very well.  We had 100 girls just doing beadwork. 

Were you ever interested in designing for men?

I never tried to do designs for men.  I had my hands were full with the handbags and the belts and the jewelry that I made. 


Did you design costume jewelry or precious jewelry?

Yes, I had a small costume jewelry business when we started out but I said to my husband that we don’t earn any real money on it.  We stopped making it, even though he felt we should have kept it up, but we didn’t.  Then Harry Winston’s son, Ron Winston, came to see me and said I should design real jewelry.  So we did quite a bit in that, but once I sold the business, the man who bought it wanted the license.  So we told him “Fine, you use the license.  It’s yours.” 

Before selling your business and retiring in 1998, you received numerous prestigious awards and the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums have your bags in their collections. Do you still design for your own pleasure?

I got a tremendous number of awards.  My first award was the Swarovski Award, which was a little glass piece, very pretty.  The Metropolitan Museum has 88 of my bags, not all of them are from me.  Some ladies gave them bags too.  And then I got the Coty Award in 1973, ten years after we were in business.  And then in the last year that we owned the business, I had the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award.  And I also got a Lifetime Achievement Award a few years before from the Accessories Business.  And I had all kinds of other awards including a very beautiful award from the Moore College. 

I don’t do any more work. You cannot make handbags without the factory.  You need people to put the stuff together right.  So you decide what you do and you can make the patterns wonderful, and then you have to have a shop to work on it. 

You established The Leiber Museum in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, New York to primarily showcase your work and the art work of your husband. Has this new venture been an exciting chapter for you?

Six or seven years ago, my husband built a museum.  He had a little help from an architect, but the bulk of the work, the ideas were all his.  The building is sort of Palladian and looks very nice. 

We are showing not just my handbags.  There is a part of my work that is displayed permanently, but this year we also had a very large display of different kinds of bags, about 500, in the big room that usually is used for paintings. 

It’s really a great little building and Gus is going to show some of his work next summer.  He’s working very hard this winter, making lots of paintings. He’s also going to have a show at the Carter Burden Gallery which only shows older artists who didn’t have large success with their work in the market.   

Now at age 92, having had a remarkably long career, long marriage, long life and having built a large estate, what dreams do you still have?

As far as the future is concerned, we are now hoping to live long enough to have a 70-year marriage anniversary; on February 5th we will be married 68 years. We want to be able to enjoy our life and carry on for many more years.  And once we go, this museum is going to be endowed enough so that it will go on for a long, long time after we are gone. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

An Interview with NELSON SHANKS: Extraordinary Realistic Painting with Humanistic Depth

Nelson is an extraordinary realist painter whose collections are cherished all over the world. He has generously shared his skills and interest with others by  founding, Studio Incamminaiti in Philadelphia to teach the rigors of realistic painting.

Your sensitivity and inclination to art showed itself in your early childhood years: “I started painting when I was 5.  Did your parents encourage your passion for art? Were they creative individuals?

My mother was a pianist, so I was listening to great music all day long as a child and even now.  And my father left for World War II, and in preparation for coming back, he bought an oil painting set for himself. I, at age five, promptly used it up.

And so, I would have been 5 when I did the first oil painting. Maybe not exactly what the average child would do because I was very interested in space and light and shadow and a few other things. 

He also bought my mother one of the better coffee table books of that time; of course, they’re nothing like the ones now.  It had illustrations of some of the great artists from the Early Renaissance on through the Impressionist, maybe even Post-Impressionist.  It was about an inch-thick book, and I pretty much wore it out--just fascinated by the paintings. My favorites were, at that time, a certain early Renoir and then Rembrandt and Ingres and art like that.  Even at age 5, I was captivated by this book and by art. 

When you were using that oil painting kit, were you looking at pictures at that time—or in the mirror—or at your mother? 
Actually at 5 years old, needless to say, I had no experience.  I had no formal education, no education at all.  

And my aunt who I think was working in Los Alamos on the nuclear projects couldn’t send any postcards from there, so she sent things from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  And so I received this Albuquerque postcard—I didn’t, my family did—and it was an Indian adobe house with these poles sticking out of the front and cast shadows running down the front of the adobe.  And I found that fascinating, and that’s what I painted—not normally what, as they say, a five year old would paint. We still have that silly little picture. 
As far as encouragement is concerned, I don’t think I received any negative response.  But my parents certainly were not cheerleaders, so it was something sort of in between.  I would run to my parents, every five minutes and say “Look, look.  This is the best thing I’ve ever done.”  They didn’t ridicule me at least.
Your father must have particularly had some art sensitivity. How many fathers from World War II, having been away, or not even away, would buy an oil painting set and this particular book? 
True, he had even done a pastel or two.  Although he was a very busy businessman, he did have interest there.

As a teenager you demonstrated not just incredible talent but also a strong sense of independence. You began studying at the Art Students League in NYC at 18 and managed to earn your own tuition through work at the school.  Do you ever look back and wonder about being so young with such drive and focus?
It is kind of remarkable; I honestly can’t account for it. I did go to college for a couple of years and I was thoroughly bored.  I would find myself on weekends running to museums and studying various paintings, particularly among which was Rembrandt, of course.  By the time I got to New York, I was completely captivated by the idea of being a painter and so I dedicated my whole life to it. Beginning then work was something I enjoyed.  Work—if painting is work—why, then I was working.  But I feel a little guilty calling it “work” because I am so involved in it.  It’s a compulsion, and it’s gratifying at the same time—very gratifying.  
With prestigious grants you studied in Italy returning later to teach in Memphis, Chicago, New York (Art Students League, The National Academy of Design) and then Bucks County, Pennsylvania. During the years that you were strengthening your skills as a realist painter, were you also reflecting on your next move to art education?
Quite frankly, at that point, I was consumed with learning all these skills myself and gaining capability.  I was aware that it was just completely incredulous that the teaching level was so pathetic that I just felt challenged to try to do something about it in my own way.  And I’ve had a compulsion to do that ever since, for the last 50 years. 

You have continued to teach. You generously established an art apprentice program in your home studio at no cost to the student and then considering the high demand for developing skills in painting realism; you founded Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia.  That was a huge investment of your time and energy. What support did you have to make that happen so successfully?     
Well, the students who came to me pleading that I teach in Philadelphia were my biggest, let’s say, fan club, and they were the most encouraging because they were very, very excited about the idea of something being created.  The first few years, I was the sole teacher, and so I was there teaching two or three days a week, all day.  And it was sort of holding back my own work.  So, as the years have gone by, I’ve had students whom I have trained become the teachers.  And this is part of the philosophy—that the students become teachers and start doing a little bit of teaching rather early on in their education.  Now we’ve developed some absolutely superb teachers and painters who are going around this country and the world teaching.  This is only the beginning of what will definitely be expanded. 
That’s sensational.  It’s really giving back. 
It’s working big time. 
Your portraits are rich in realistic life details and also carry a depth of soulfulness.  Who was your first well-known commissioned portrait? How did you receive that project?
Oh wow, I can barely remember.  I know that a businessman, an associate of my father’s, asked me to paint a portrait, but it was way too early.  I didn’t have that kind of confidence when I was about nineteen.  Then when I was in New York studying, I was asked to paint the head minister of the All Saints Unitarian Church on Madison Avenue in New York, and I painted Dr. Walter Donald Crane.  Right about that time, I also went to Europe—to Italy for a couple of years—so I painted a lot of friends and a lot of things but not high profile commissions.  So let’s see, oh gosh, it’s very hard to remember.  It's just been a question of slowly going up a staircase.  And it’s hard to know if there’s any one point where the light starts flashing and suddenly, oh boy, I’m painting some important people.  I don’t put that much into the celebrity status, because I’ve come to the conclusion that all people have depth, and all people have something that I would love to extrude and put into a painting.  And so, it’s not just kings and queens and princesses that I go into with depth.  It’s virtually everything I paint, frankly. 
Then again getting to know these people—some, I have become very good friends with.  Perhaps the deepest relationship might be with Diana, but I also had a wonderful relationship with Margaret Thatcher.  I painted her twice, so I spent many, many hours with her—both during the paintings and other times.  We were great friends. 

Generally speaking, we make friends.  And because I’m painting friends, their humanity is very much in the forefront.  It’s very gratifying that way because I don’t hide what I’m doing and then sort of flash it to them at the end.  They are part of the process, and they see what I’m doing the whole way.  And I think they really, really gain from it.  People I never would have expected would get excited and interested in the project do become interested and excited about the project.  So, that’s very gratifying.  I’m not just painting an object.  So, it makes a big difference. 

Now that you are famous and in museums, galleries and collections all over the world, do you have an agent(s) for your art or do commissions come to you directly?
Well, they normally come to me directly.  I run across so many people and so many people are aware of my work that I don’t need someone out there peddling it.  But often I’ll get, for example, a recommendation—someone will be sent to me by a museum director or museum curators or people that are in the art world or that kind of thing—or just because of connections that have somehow or other been attained over the last half-century.   But selling paintings—I just run across people that really want them, and that’s very gratifying. 
Occasionally, I will have a show with an exhibition, for example I just had two very, very important exhibitions in Russia.  I was invited by the Russian Academy of Art to have a major exhibition there, and I did, two years ago.  And then the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg wanted the same show and got it.  So, I showed at the two very major Russian Museums.  And that was I guess word of mouth, people heard about me, or whatever, and they approached me. 
You have said that “You cannot make a major difference doing things in a minor way”. Has that belief driven you to succeed?
With the major things in my life, my painting, and therefore my teaching—and of course my family—there is no element of complacency as I approach these things, and that might be represented by calling it in a minor way.  So for example—the teaching—I could teach a few students or have a few apprentices here living with me around the house, but actually I think reaching a greater number of people and influencing art worldwide is my ambition. I think we’re well on the road.  I think art needs some major changes.  And what they call modern art is just ridiculous.  I think it’s time to reset the clock and reset the direction of art, and we’re doing that.   But it’s a big responsibility to teach people not just talk about it. 

Words almost become meaningless.  But I think we can change some things, but there has to be better art out there for people to grasp on to.  And with great hope and luck, I and some of these students will provide that.  So that’s what I mean by doing something in a big way.  But I don’t mean that you should make—when you fix breakfast—spend a lifetime on it.  I think you do have to select the most important things to address your time with. 
At 75, you remain very active by painting almost daily and continuing to teach at Studio Incamminati. Do you have daily routines? Do you still have any unfulfilled goals?
I have exactly the same routine I think I’ve always had, but maybe it’s more of a routine than it ever was.  I get up early, often its dark and I’ll come to the studio very early in the morning, and I will paint without sitting down often for ten or eleven or even twelve hours. 
And, it’s no more difficult for me to do that now, in fact perhaps easier than it ever was because it’s become quite a habit.  I do know that many of my students fall on the floor in exhaustion after about an hour, and I’m like the little battery that keeps on going.  And I feel I have every bit as much energy and a whole lot more experience and ability than I had when I was much younger. 
Do you work out?  Do you do some physical exercises that help you maintain this incredible routine? 
A little, but I have little, little ambition to become an Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
Do you possibly have any unfulfilled goals at this point? 
Just more and better paintings—I think my paintings are almost becoming more ambitious in the last five or six years than they’ve ever been—and more complicated.  I think they’re more competent.  I think they have greater appeal visually, and I think they’re more exciting.  I think they have greater depth, and so this is all an accumulation of knowledge that I’ve gained over all these years.  And I’m enjoying the heck out of being competent.   
But, there is nothing like knowledge, and one of my statements that I would make, unsolicited from you, is that “show me somebody that is self-taught, and I’ll show you someone who is incompetent and ignorant.”  Because there is such a vast, vast, vast resource in art history and those paintings and painters that have come before, that somebody who has not seen those—because if they’ve seen those at all and studied them at all, then they’re not self-taught—they’re getting it from—self-taught means total ignorance, and I’m not for that at all.  I think the more you know, the greater the creativity. 


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

An Interview with BENNETT BEAN: Creating a Continuum of Art

I understand that you migrated to art as a college student. I assume that there were early creative experiences that paved the way. Was your artful spirit hibernating, were you aware of it?

First, it was the way I was brought up and given a sense by my mother that I was astonishingly wonderful. This is a perfect gift to give a child. Second, third grade was amazingly important.  I went to a university experimental school where their experiment was to provide a project then point to the back of the room where there were plenty of books and materials to find a solution. I still approach my art that way; I have a project and then I search for the solution. So much is about curiosity.

I was dyslexic before they invented dyslexia so I was considered stupid; but, I was so well armored by my mother’s spirit that I could not be crushed. I think of dyslexia as an advantage, and I feel sorry for artists who think in linear terms; I enjoy thinking in terms of a relational field of elements spun in space.

Becoming an artist was not a very popular thought when I was growing up in the 50s. In any event, my mother said that I could be an artist but had to finish school first so in that way she gave me permission and restrictions.

It’s interesting that your mother was the one to encourage you to take the leap in Art studies since often most parents place an emphatic push on traditional careers.  She must have been a very intuitive person with good instincts.

My mother was fabulous with great instincts and very smart. I had a great childhood with only standard suffering such as occasional bullying. It was idyllic to grow up in the Midwest in the 50’s.


You traveled through initial career journeys as an archaeologist then an architect to solidly planting yourself as an artist. How have these studies shaped your thinking in making your art?

I was really shopping for a way to make a living. I was very lucky to have gone to Grinnell, which was a liberal arts college where I was forced to explore a variety of studies. Their core curriculum was really good. I was just trying to figure it out and then I received permission from my mother to study Art and left Grinnell. I enrolled in the University of Iowa which was like a huge art factory and a wonderful place to be; an ideal situation with many types of students.


You write:“The things I make influence what I buy and the things I buy influence what I make…..  It’s a dance where ideas are applied in different ways depending on the medium.” This integrative approach must trigger a whole inner circle of visual and intellectual thought. When did you become conscious of this unique way of relating to the objects around you?


It is kind of a circle; each feeds the other. We’re making rugs in Nepal and using images of pots in the design, and as the rugs change it goes back and influences my pots again. Now I am making a new line of furniture which is taking imagery from both the pots and the rugs. It is a kind of interior discussion based on curiosity of what happens if I take this thing from here……stealing one thing from one place to see how it may fit in another . It’s an approach of transforming one thing to another.

Your approach to creating art is dynamic. You respond with flexibility, shifting your initial values to embrace a more complex view that hosts many elements of thought to bring down barriers of distinction among those elements. Do you consider yourself a flexible open person in life as well?


I have been a practicing Buddhist for many years; one of the things this leads to is that one becomes less interested in the distinctions between this and that.  I’m not interested in barriers, so I can move between things that others may find think of as very different. And a lot of what I do is to show up to the problem with whatever point of view I have and apply it.
I probably consider myself more open and flexible than others do. 
Also I may be more open than flexible because the way I do things requires discipline so it means that I may have to say “No” to people who want me to do something else.


Having created in many mediums (clay, paint, steel, fiber) and produced many objects/items, what do you still yearn to do now at 72?

I have way more ideas than I could ever actually physically execute. I would like to have a big pile of money so I could hire a bunch of people to do them. And what I would really like to make is big sculpture, monster steel things with gold inside. That would be fun. Also it would be interesting to revisit utilitarian ceramics because it is where I started.
It’s almost a continuation of all things and of course there is an economic piece to all of it since I stopped teaching 40 years ago and now I am focused on sustaining my studio.

As I get older, I clearly have less energy. I am slowly deteriorating physically although I still suffer from attacks of euphoria.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interview with DONNA MC CULLOUGH: Creative Recycling through Artful Welding

You started drawing early. What do you most remember about your beginning creative years?
I remember seeing Degas bronze dancer with the fabric skirt at the Baltimore Museum of Art. That piece definitely influenced my work!
Grand mom taught us how to cross stitch and other needlework. We were always working on something and have many ribbons from submitting our art work in the County Fairs. I also loved to draw horses and sketched all over my notebooks and art pads. Now I have horses and do sculptures of them.
My mom painted and gave art classes in our home and Dad did woodworking. Art was everywhere around us. She sewed and taught me to sew and I began making my own clothes in 9th grade.

Your female artistic influencers as you grew up were family since your grandmother, mother and sister were artists. Did everyone work differently in different mediums or in a similar venue?
My sister and I were encouraged early on. My mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all artists. One of my great grandmother’s paintings of strawberries in a wooden bowl hung in my grandmother’s dining room. Grand mom painted china and did needlework. Mom painted and now makes jewelry also. My sister was a graphic designer and painter and now teaches painting and drawing at Youngstown University. I started painting and drawing and ended up doing sculpture.

You were employed as a staff designer working in retail packaging for many years before having a “aha” moment which triggered your study of welding and ushered you in the world of 3 dimensions. In a way, this also revealed your talents similar to your father’s in carpentry. How did you take that artistic leap from 2 D to 3D, from creating classic art to creating mechanical art?
I still am a graphic designer/art director three days a week. These are very long days with a very long commute.

I never realized that connection to my dad’s carpentry. I can figure out most projects on my own; I somehow have the three dimensional sense to work forms out. I don’t need to draw or build diagrams or miniatures.Perhaps it's because I know my subjects well: female forms and animals…horses, dogs and chickens.
As far as making the leap, it took me a bit to overcome the fear factor of welding. I started doing oxy acetylene which has an open flame and looks much scarier than mig (metal inert gas) welding which I do now. But, I knew that this was a core need that I developed so I stuck to it. I work by myself and sometimes just the weight of some of the pieces makes it difficult to deal with. Those are the times I think I should go back to painting! I do all the hauling and installations for my shows also and wonder how long I will be able to do it.

Many of your female dress pieces depict contradictions in elements. It could be a metal bodice and a tulle skirt or a metal bodice and an unfilled metal frame skirt or the drill team series which plays on the concepts of both an oil drill and a cheerleader drill. Do you think of these concepts before beginning your piece? Do you sketch or plan your form before creating it?
I do not normally sketch out dresses. I do have ideas when I start a project. Sometimes a piece starts when I choose an interesting piece of metal that I feel lends itself to a bodice and start from there. Sometimes I do the top part and then decide what would work best as the skirt. Each piece is totally different. The pieces I do actually plan are the Drill Team girls (the oil and gas can pieces). The material (oil cans) is difficult to find so I really think before I start cutting the metal. I also try to figure out what I will use for the skirt before I start the top part.
One example of how things begin is a piece called Belle Epoche. This is a horse piece. I was cleaning out my locker in a studio that I rent and found two pieces of metal from an old grass catcher from a commercial lawn mower. These pieces were what was left from another time I had used part of it. The shape of the pieces reminded me of a horse neck. So, that is how that piece was born.

Do you actively seek to recycle elements in your art or is it serendipitous?
I think the answer to the question is both. I love to create new objects out of totally unusual materials. I have a dress in my current show called Heat Wave. She is created from an old oil heater that a friend was throwing out. I actually jumped into the large dumpster and hauled it out! I attached the label from the oil heater to the back of her dress. A bit of humor.
I started using what I found because I did not have the money or know how to find or buy what I needed. This directed the style of my pieces and now I am known for that look. I acquire pieces by finding them on the road, scrap yards, friends, goodwill, ebay etc.

Your love of animals is reflected in your art of horses, dogs and various fowl. Do you prefer to work in a series like the female form or to create individual sculptures like the animals?
I mostly create the dress series because they are often what the galleries want. I used to do some dresses, then work on animals. I enjoy trying to plan on creating dresses/animals/dresses/animals alternatively.

Looking ahead, what are you visions and goals for further developing your art now that you are only months away from being 60?
I plan on working on life size horse pieces. I also anticipate creating more pieces that will actually hang on the wall. I want to expand my reach, get my work into more galleries, and somehow combine art and traveling.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

An Interview with MARILYN PAPPAS: Fiber Artist Stitches in Time

How did your early years shape your role as an artist? At what point in time did you realize that art would be your path?

 Art was my first love from as far back as I can remember. I loved to draw and always wanted to be an artist so, for me, there was no adolescent dilemma about how to spend my life. I wanted to study art at a professional art school and did just that. However, I did not become interested in teaching until I started to work at summer camps while in art school.

You studied Art Education and received a BA and MS in that area. Subsequently you taught Art in public schools and then brought your expertise to college students where you are currently Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Can you talk about your teaching?

 Looking back at a very long teaching career, 41 years covering virtually every level from kindergarten through graduate studies, I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced those years. While I love being a full time artist now, I feel that the years in academia were continually rich in creativity, inspiration and learning from my students as well as from the actual teaching. My last 20 years of teaching, at MassArt, were particularly rewarding as well as demanding. The level of students was extremely high. I also served as Chair of the 3Dimensional Fine Arts Department for 9 of those years, a challenge and an opportunity to interact with faculty, administrators and students in another way. Perhaps all of these layers of learning gave me discipline, organization and patience – all important qualities for an artist – as well as creativity and a continuing love of art, old and new. I think it is important to note that I always continued working on my own art, through all of these demanding years.

Your work today is based on the technique of laborious and intensive stitching used to generate a complex tonal pictorial effect. What other art techniques did you explore before developing these pieces?

My adult artwork began with woodcuts, moved on through fabric assemblage to collage and papermaking  and finally, as my retirement from teaching approached, I returned to my interest in fabric, stitching and drawing, turning toward my travels, especially to Mediterranian countries and, gradually, to classical sculptures of goddesses. Still powerful, although broken and worn, these images inspire me to interpretations that express their strength, feminism, beauty and vulnerability – universal characteristics that remain important to women today.

In creating unique and intricate stitched art that replicates women in antiquity, how do you approach each project? Do you work from your own initial drawings or reference prints?  On paper first or directly on the linen fabric that you use as your canvas?

I usually choose a sculpture that interests me, often because I have actually seen it and somehow it strikes a chord. From photographs of the sculpture, I make full scale sketches that I often cut out and then I draw the outline on linen. Most of the rest of the drawing is done directly with thread , on the background linen. My recent work, that will be shown in Philadelphia at Snyderman-Works Galleries in October, deals mainly with the colors and patterns that originally covered these sculptures that we see as white marble today. I try to imagine how these bright and often garish colors eroded over time and how the life of the colors and the beauty of the figures kept changing.

You have stated that “I am interested in the beauty of imperfection and the imperfection of beauty” and you also explore this in relation to the concepts of vulnerability, dignity and the ravages of time. These are underlying philosophies behind your art that may be understood as an approach to feminism and social politics. Can you discuss this?

 As a woman who had a career and raised a family at a time when most women were stay at home moms, I experienced all the benefits and drawbacks of a working woman. Feminism grew during those years and while I was not an activist, I was always interested in working toward and supporting the ideals expressed by the feminist movement.

You have received many awards, are in numerous collections, and have shown your work internationally in museums and exhibitions. At 82, what are you still looking to explore with your art?

 At the age of 82 I am grateful to be fit and able to work continuously as an artist. I do not know what will come next, but I do know that I look forward to and expect to keep searching, discovering and developing new ideas that translate into new work.

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Interview with ED BING LEE: Never Not Knotting Fiber Art

Photographer: Ken Yanoviak
As a child of Chinese immigrants, Ed has taken his craft to the art world. He creates hand knotted small artful objects and the series “Delectable” is a charming and beautifully crafted replication of American junk food.

As a child of Chinese immigrants whose father died young and mother worked in a sewing factory, your roots were humble. You were fortunately recognized for your artistic talent in grade school and later went on to earn two Master Degrees and become a successful fiber artist.  Do you reflect on your achievement and the roads that paved the path to where you are now?

As I look back on the 50 odd years of working in the "arts", the experience has afforded me with much pleasure, some surprises, few disappointments and even regrets.   One regret is that I never took the time to explore a large scale knotted pieces,  a point of view undergoing revision in my current work as well as in future projects.

Your creative experience using knotting began around 1970 while you were teaching off loom techniques. What you say about knotting is that “You can go two-dimensional, three-dimensional, or you can do both at the same time. And there’s no machinery.” Certainly knotting does not require any machinery and it does not require tools either.  Since it is relegated to your hands only, do you treat your hands with special creams, gloves, or exercises to keep them nimble and able to handle all your creative ideas?

I have been fortunate in that I have not experienced any extreme trauma with the use of my hands. I don't have any special routine for their care. Of late I try to minimize any straining motions and have slowed my pace considerably. Mostly, I rest frequently and try to vary hand actions so that I'm not repeating the same motion endlessly.

Is all your work entirely fiber? That is to say, you primarily work with waxed linen, embroidery floss and synthetic ribbons although you have included paper and shoelaces in your Chawan series. Do you often explore using other linear or fibrous elements?

Linen and embroidery floss were the only materials I used when I started knotting. The two dimensional pieces as in the PICNIC series and as in the art history inspired figural pieces were made exclusively in these two materials. The warp was linen and embroidery floss and served to create the pictorial images, all in an effort to simulate a tapestry.

I started using waxed linen in my EARTHCRUST series because it allowed me to incorporate three dimensional projections as in a bas-relief. The structural character of the waxed linen also facilitated the making of free standing sculptural images which I  combined with the richer palette of the embroidery floss, the wellspring of the DELECTABLE series.

The CHAWAN series was a period of learning and experimentation for me.  I started to use new materials: ribbons, shoe laces, costume trimming and paper cords and ribbons. More importantly, I started to use a wider variety of knots and combined materials of different weights and textures within a single piece. To date the CHAWAN was my largest series numbering some fifty items.

In developing your art, you appear to have launched yourself from your knowledge as a painter and skill as a fiber architect. By interpreting the pointillism of Seurat, you created a knotted translation. In your “Delectables” series, your work is an interpretation of popular iconic American foods.  Each one is a series to build upon and consider. Are you currently working on another thematic project?

Currently I'm considering two distinct series. In the works are large sculptural pieces which contain aspects from the DELECTABLE series. The treatment is more abstract. The form, color and texture of the images in the DELECTABLES relied heavily on their actual counterparts. But in the new food series, I'm trying to center my attention on the elements of design and composition.   I would like these new pieces to have a presence as Art independent of their source.

The second series exists mostly in my imagination but I am beginning to see definable outlines. Possibly a series of miniatures combining art historical and contemporary images within a single pictorial format.

In the process of creating a new piece, do you plan for it by rendering sketches? If so, do you include structural elements?

As a preface to this question, the actual making of a knotted object is a long (emphasize long) process. Several months is not out of the question and a few select pieces require a more substantial block of time. My process is to picture the finished piece in my mind; consider the construction (materials, size, color and most importantly, the starting point); followed by visualizations in drawings with appropriate remarks and notations; then start knotting. It is very rare that the completed piece is like what I had imagined. A large part of the cause for rethink and adjustments is precipitated by the fact that all my sculptural pieces are hollow, which affects the design, the type of material and certainly the construction.  A case in point, I like my pieces to be self supporting which may entail reinforcing the walls.

Common practice for most sculptural knotters is to use a supporting form around which they knot. When finished, the support would be completely covered. This practice renders a much smoother and uniform surface.

You were honored to receive the Pew Fellowships in the Arts award, exhibited widely and your art is in esteemed collections. Does this success fuel your creative energy?

This question gave me a pause. All too often achievements are measured as a linear unfolding. as one milestone after another. However I feel the term achievement is bit too formal for me, preferring to think of the different stages as beads of different sizes, significances and magnitude of importance being strung together, representing the whole of my work while continue to I add beads. The following lines by Rudyard Kipling in his poem IF captures my sentiments very succinctly:
     "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
     And treat those two impostors just the same:…”

You say that “challenge moves my work forward”. You have certainly used challenge to move your life forward; now at 80 what creative challenge lies ahead?

I believe that what I have done in the past is an integral part of what I am doing now.  When starting a new series I seek to present these selfsame "borrowings" in a different light, it is a process of deconstructing and revitalizing my artistic vision.

Another aspect that I would like to see embodied in my work is what has been described by Hanneke Grootenboor  in his RHETORIC OF PERSPECTIVE that Art is capable of presenting complex thoughts that are often contradictory, so Art can represent..."thinking in a way that is superficial and profound, empty and meaningful, playful and serious."

Finally, I would like to have enough work for a solo in my mid 80's.  Is it possible to have it all?