Interview with Iris Goldstein: New Plaster Reliefs

Iris Goldstein, a sculptor who has exhibited her work nationally and internationally in both Europe and Japan, creates relief sculptures made of plaster and aluminum screening, connecting textural surfaces and exploring color. She was an Artist-in-Residence in Haguro-Machi, Japan, and co-curated the Thirty Years at ARC Exhibition in 2003. Her husband, Paul, has fully supported her aspirations to obtain a graduate degree in art and to work as an artist. Together they have raised 4 children.

Reflections. Courtesy of the artist.

I have always had to balance family obligations and the time needed to be an artist, but my struggle has always been finding ideas that are interesting enough to me to pursue so that I could put in a lot of time on a piece and not lose interest. I have always worked from within myself, seeking to find something that is new to me.

ArtStyle: Where did you study art and were there any artists who influenced you?

Iris Goldstein (IG): Making art has been the principal interest all of my life. I grew up in Chicago and attended the public schools here. My first solo art exhibit was in the 7th grade at Nettlehorst School. I studied art in high school and won a Scholastic Magazine art award scholarship to study art at Syracuse University. I decided to attend Smith College instead because I knew that they had a very strong art department, and I was interested in earning a liberal arts degree. My principal influences at Smith were Leonard Baskin and Elliot Offner, both sculptors. After graduating from Smith, I earned an MFA at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC), majoring in drawing and painting. I turned to making sculpture a few years after finishing at the SAIC, while drawing on my college influences and classes that I was taking at the time with Cosmo Campoli, a Chicago sculptor.

Wood Sculpture
Wood Sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

For years, I made sculpture, carving large pieces of hard wood. It was very labor intensive but I loved the process. Working with tools is interesting to me — I even used a chain saw. This is one of the last pieces that I carved (Wood Sculpture). Look what I did with the surface. I made thousands of tiny marks with color pencils, and the marks are almost invisible.

An artist friend Carol Seitchik taught me a technique of working with plaster over aluminum screening. The technique, for me, was an extension of my work in wood. In the beginning, I made, almost exclusively, plaster reliefs that I attached to a wood backing. Woodcarving was a long, laborious process for me, and this new technique allowed me to work faster and create installations. I could treat the surface the way I treated the wood, with much more attention to detail.

Iris Goldstein working on her sculpture.. Photo credit: Mirjana Ugrinov.

ArtStyle: How would you describe your current technique (plaster-aluminum screening)?

IG: I pre-cut pieces of aluminum screening to the dimensions I need. Then I bend these with my hands into organic shapes, and I use pieces of wire to hold the shapes in place and then attach cheesecloth over the wire. In the past I used to sew the cheesecloth to the wire, with needle and thread, but now I just gently stretch it over the wire. Then, I mix the plaster into a yogurt-consistency and paint as many coats as I feel I need on the cheesecloth — building the surface and letting it dry between layers. The plaster is applied in small sections, and as I paint, I continue to shape the surface with the brush. You have to work quickly because plaster stiffens very fast. Molding the shapes comes easily. I use scissors to cut around the shapes. The surfaces are very interesting — sometimes, the plaster coating is thicker and smoother in some places. Once dry, I can sand the shapes into smooth surfaces, carve them like wood or just leave the paint brush texture. I work over the surface as if it was clay. I can cut and carve into it. I keep painting over the plaster until it is built up to approximately 1/4-inch thickness. Sometimes the shapes are stapled to wood.

ArtStyle: Are you using a special kind of plaster to make the pieces less fragile?

IG: Surprisingly, the work is very durable, and it is shipped easily. I use FGR 95 Hydrocal. It's the kind of plaster that's able to receive fiberglass but it doesn't contain it. I've never had a problem with cracking. The pieces are light weight and easy to repair if they chip.

Drawing. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Drawing is another medium you are working in. The finish of your 3-D surfaces is similar to your elaborate pencil drawings. How and when do you draw?

IG: My normal process would be to sit down and work on drawing while the plaster coat on my 3-D work dries. I still struggle to make drawings that work for me, and I like drawing with pencil because plaster is so messy and pencils are easy. I love putting the marks on the paper. I experiment with textures of paper and a detailed pencil line varies tremendously from paper to paper. In working with my technique, I like smooth, hot press paper. For example, this sketchbook is Fabriano paper. I'm trying to find the paper that will give me the results that I want. I think I have every brand of pencil. I like Prismacolor and Derwent. I keep them organized by color in pencil holders that I can just unzip and use whenever I need them. An idea drawing book is something I always carry with me. You can take it into a car, train, or wherever you go.

Landscape. Photo credit: Mirjana Ugrinov.

ArtStyle: This piece (Landscape) is very simple and yet monumental looking. You left it completely white. Where does it fit within your creative process?

IG: There was a period when I left my plaster over screen and the work unpainted. I was interested in form at that time. This piece is a series of long segments that are connected in the back with a wood brace. As large as it is, it's lightweight and easy to disassemble and move around. It was on display at the Saks Fifth Avenue mall on Michigan Avenue for quite some time. I carried it home by myself, piece by piece.

ArtStyle: You said that you have to do art. What motivates you and inspires you?

IG: There is a quality of enjoyment in the process. Shapes surprise you. Discovery through the process of working is what is interesting. Negative space is as important as the positive space. I'm interested in this relationship. I'm interested in organic and geometric forms, and landscape always inspires me. When I'm walking in the woods, I always take pictures of trees, roots, and branches. I take a lot of pictures of rocks, too. I just keep some of the images on the camera so I can look at them.

Hotdog House
Hot Dog House. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: You have a strong sense of design and spatial understanding. Could you talk about your design experience?

IG: I learned a lot from Stanley Tigerman, the architect, when he designed a country house for us in Harvard, Illinois in the early 1970s. He called it The Hot Dog House (although we never did), and it became very famous. It was featured in GA Houses and House and Garden magazine, and in the early years, after the house was built, I used to go into Rizzoli's Bookstore to leaf through architecture books and occasionally find a photo and story about our house. The back of the house faced a pond and large oak trees. Stanley designed large fixed-glass picture windows and ventilating grills to let in air. I decided to paint them to look like a Mondrian painting. I chose the colors and their placement and actually got up on an 18-foot ladder and painted the 2-story façade myself.

Partial Sketch
Sketch. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: In April of 2008, you will be exhibiting at ARC Gallery. What are you preparing for this show?

IG: I would like to do something spectacular on the ARC gallery walls. It will be an installation specifically created for the gallery space I choose. Parts need to exist on their own but the installation, as well, will be part of the art piece. The elements themselves will be more three dimensional, standing away from the wall, not stapled to the wood backing. I think that I will use very bright, almost primary colors for the surfaces — brighter than anything I've done in the past. I keep thinking about the show, and I visualize the work in the space. Recently, I woke up from the dream I had about it and said: Yes, this is what I want. So, I sketched some of it on paper.

For more of Iris Goldstein's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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