In the Studio: Meredith Bergmann
Meredith Bergmann has been sculpting for more than forty years. During that time she has completed a number of significant commissions and public monuments—including the FDR Hope Memorial, the Boston Women’s Memorial, a September 11th Memorial and more—as well as created an expansive oeuvre of personal work woven with irony, witticisms and social commentary. In addition to being an accomplished visual artist, Bergmann is also a published poet and has been the poetry editor of American Arts Quarterly and the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center’s website for ten years. Sandra Sanderson, the managing editor of American Arts Quarterly and this website, suggested I visit with Bergmann in her Ridgefield, Connecticut studio to learn more about her work. Although a snowstorm prevented my trip to Connecticut on the day of our scheduled visit, Bergmann and I were able to connect through a remote interview, and in this Q+A the artist shares details about her new studio and home; her training in New York City and Pietrasanta, Italy; and the motivation behind several of her works.
AM: You are both a professional artist and a published poet. Were art and poetry always prevalent art forms in your life? At what point did you start to recognize and cultivate these abilities?
MB: I always loved drawing, reading and making things. I must have been a strange little girl—precociously wordy, bright, and mischievous but emotionally very intense. My parents encouraged me to “do art” because I was good at it and it made me very happy. I thought I might grow up to write and illustrate books or become a singer-songwriter or an actress/playwright, but I wanted adventure and I wanted to do work that mattered in the world. My parents, as secular Jews from families that had aspired to melt into the American pot, had experienced enough discrimination to regard the heroes of the Civil Rights movement as their heroes. They instilled in me a need to find a way to make my own contribution.
My parents were adamant that I should go to a liberal arts college rather than art school, but they weren’t able to explain why this was important and what my father’s French major had done to expand his view of the world or his enjoyment of his law practice. (Although he did introduce me to Daumier’s caricatures of the legal profession, which he admired.) So I spent two years at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, taking every art class I could and discovering the rich symbolic content of European art history. I had read but hadn’t studied poetry in high school, neither the literature nor the technique, and I was too intimidated to study with Richard Wilbur and F.D. Reeve, which I regret. I then tried a year of design school at Parsons in New York City, and later applied to transfer to an art school.
AM: Of the various forms of education and training you had throughout your life, which were the most formal and important to the work you are doing now?
MB: I was accepted to Cooper Union as a junior, so I missed their foundation courses and floundered for a year trying to paint, make videos, design album covers, and do a lot of photography. My most formally rigorous teacher was Don Kunz, who painted gorgeous abstractions and who taught calligraphy, both technique and spirit. My most inspiring teacher was a bit cracked but very charismatic, and although he called the course “Art and Mathematics” and was obsessed with Tarot cards and sine curves, he taught me that any really elaborately worked-out symbolic vocabulary can be great fun to employ and to interpret, even if you’ve invented the whole thing.
I had very little patience and no technical training to create sculpture, but Cooper had a bronze foundry and assistants who helped at every stage. I was dazzled by the process: I could play around with wax, model something without an armature, and have it cast into a material that, I knew from art history classes, could last millennia. I was amazed that I could make sculpture. And then I graduated. I no longer think that any of the media or genres I studied were dead ends, and I use the lessons I learned in photography, calligraphy and graphic design all the time in my work.
After graduation, I had no plan except to go see the art I had studied. I wandered around France, Switzerland and Germany with a rail pass and then lived in a dorm in Paris and took a drawing class in the Marais. I called home, feeling lost, and my mother told me, “Go see Florence—you’ll fall in love. I can send you some money.” She did, and I did. I studied Italian and cast very small sculptures in a jewelry studio, and visited Pietrasanta to meet an Italian sculptress my mother had buttonholed at a reception in New Jersey.
AM: Studying in a town so rich with sculptural history and renown for its marble in particular must have been an amazing experience as a budding sculptor. Did you study marble carving exclusively while you were there? Also, do you still sculpt in marble today?
MB: I moved to Pietrasanta and began making sculpture, as I knew how to, in wax and casting in one of the seven foundries. At the foundry and in the cafés I met most of the resident sculptors and, later, those who came for the summer. I learned a great deal from watching them work, especially from William McElcheran, Bruno Lucchesi, and other Forum Gallery sculptors. I began to learn to build armatures and to model from life with clay. Because I could draw well, McElcheran suggested I try bas-relief, and I began to turn some of my drawings and photographs into reliefs in clay. I felt truly inept, but one day Lucchesi came by the foundry and saw me working on a female nude in relief and said, “I never saw anyone get so good so fast.” That (offhand?) remark kept me going for years!
The town was full of beautiful marble, local and shipped in from foreign quarries, being turned into everything from bathroom sinks to monumental statues of Jesus. When my train from Florence pulled into the station I could hear the clink of hammers on steel chisels. I began to learn to carve at one of the ateliers, first a small head and then an enlargement of one of my bas-reliefs. I made smaller sculptures in alabaster by whittling the softer stone. But I was still a beginner and, needing the freedom to correct or change the form, I found carving stone frustrating. Eventually I shipped my unfinished pieces home and finished the marble relief two years later in my loft in Brooklyn. I haven’t carved stone in many years, but my large pieces in directly modeled cement were all shaped with rasps, as if they were soft stone; and I often aim, in clay, for the feeling of solidity and density of stone. I would be happy to have some of my work rendered in marble by the artigiani of Pietrasanta.
AM: During that educational experience in Italy as a young artist, did you follow in the typical atelier-style model of training, where you found a mentor or a set of specific teachers to follow?
MB: I used to envy people who had a mentor, who found the perfect artist to emulate and learn from, but I couldn’t do that. I needed to piece together my own style and find my own motivations, as my own imagination would have been irrepressible. When I left Pietrasanta I asked Lucchesi, who was the most accomplished living sculptor with the most beautiful sense of form that I’d yet met, whether I could study with him. He told me not to, that I had to follow what he thought was already my own style and not try to emulate his, as so many of his students had done.
AM: You have completed many significant commissions throughout your career. What sculpture project to date are you most proud of and why?
MB: I’m most proud of whichever one seems the most necessary. At the moment, that’s the Boston Women’s Memorial. People flocked to it before and after the election, leaving messages, prayers, and apologies for Lucy Stone, Abigail Adams and Phillis Wheatley. But the best is when someone I don’t know has an important reaction to one of them. My son’s teacher—a young neuroscientist whose parents came here as refugees from Sri Lanka—told me when she saw a photo of my Memorial to Countee Cullen that she had seen the memorial in the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library when she was twelve. Seeing that sculpture inspired her to study racial prejudice and, later, the neurological impact of racist insults on the brain, and to specialize in social neuroscience. “I looked at that sculpture and I understood that race is a social construct,” she told me.
AM: What are some of the current sculpture and poetry projects you are working on?
MB: Exot Press published my first poetry chapbook in 2014, and I’m working on a full-length book of poems. In one series I’m using an imaginary museum to reflect on human sexual behavior, exploring variations on the museum metaphor. I’m also studying Stevie Smith, a poet who drew pictures to accompany her own poems, and writing a short piece on the ways drawings have been used to illustrate light verse.
My current sculpture projects are much more serious, and darker. One is a private piece, a bas-relief using a motif from classical sculpture to convey one of the horrors of environmental pollution. The other is an ambitious proposal for a New York Slavery Memorial, which I hope to see realized in uptown Manhattan.
AM: How long have you been in your current studio? Do you enjoy being in Connecticut as opposed to New York City?
MB: I love the city. I lived there for forty-three years, and my husband and son are natives, but I grew up in a house with a lawn and trees, and houses play a rich part in my dreams and imagination, so I’m glad to have one of my own now. I’m making pieces for the house, beginning with quotation marks for the gateposts, and planning pieces for the grounds. I’ve always wanted enough outdoor space in which to create a sculpture garden with various themes, whimsical and serious. Two of my Renaissance traffic sign reliefs are being cast in bronze, and we’ll install those along the driveway in the spring.
Indoors, I’ve made a version of a cartouche from the beautiful Baroque Stiftsbibliothek in St. Gallen, Switzerland, for our art library, with the same Greek inscription, APOTHECARY FOR THE SOUL, employing the punctuation-mark theme I used for our gateposts in the cartouche’s frame. I’ve been studying decorative and architectural sculpture recently and discovering wonderful vocabularies of form. A ridiculously over-ornamented faux neoclassical mantelpiece came with the house, but rather than strip off the moldings, I added bunnies and snowmen from my days as a freelance sculptor of chocolate-mold prototypes. The house has some dramatic spaces, and it’s given us a chance to display my work as never before.
Ridgefield is a beautiful town, full of woods and rocky topography, but we chose this house more than this town when we saw the room with lots of windows on three sides, with a high ceiling and a skylight that’s large enough to be my studio. The studio I had for the last twelve years was about a thousand square feet in a half-basement in Long Island City, but this room is equivalent to the area in which I actually did the clay sculpting. I store a lot of materials and tools in the basement, which makes for a more gracious-looking studio, too. It’s great not having to commute to work, being a room away from our library (we have several thousand art books), being able to see out in three directions and to step out into the garden anytime. I still feel connected to New York City—I spend one day a week there, developing various projects, seeing art and hearing poetry, and seeing friends.
AM: I know that you often explore history, race issues and human rights in your public sculpture work. Where do the assignments or commissions come from?
MB: Three times, since the Boston Women’s Memorial was unveiled, I have been asked to design a project, but people who want a monument usually put out a call for artists. I’ve been applying for those that interest me since the early 1980s, and I’ve made many proposals and models that did not win commissions, including a few that still haunt me. I try to find things that challenge me thematically and technically. In my work, I want a statue to embody the actual person as well as what they have come to represent, so that it functions both as portrait and as allegory. I try to find a conceptual twist or spin to put on the tradition of memorial sculpture, to update and enrich it by making sculpture that functions as a formally satisfying and thought-provoking memorial. I’m trying to create a tension between past and present, so that people encountering the sculpture will feel the presence of history in their own lives and thoughts. I have pitched ideas, sometimes very gently, to institutions as well.
AM: How did the September 11th Memorial sculpture come about, and what was it like to commemorate that life-changing event through your art?
MB: My memorial to September 11th began as a small sculpture I made at the time of the attacks, an image that popped into my head while I was trying to organize a group of artists downtown to help comfort people by drawing the missing. I made the sculpture while watching the memorial ceremonies. Years later I got to know the Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and my sculpture was exhibited in the cathedral on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, along with some fragments of the World Trade Center that had sat in their basement for a decade. Then I was asked to create a larger version, and given the fragments to incorporate. When I made the piece in 2001 I could not have imagined it in a cathedral, but having seen it there I felt absolutely convinced that it belonged there, that it would work not only to commemorate but also to comfort and inspire people—and it does. The cathedral library has a shelf of guest books full of comments, testimonies and prayers written in response to the sculpture.
AM: Moving now from public monuments and commissions to your own work, where do some of the ideas and inspiration for your personal pieces originate?
MB: I think my merry ideas come from playfulness, from a kind of mischievousness that can’t leave anything quite alone. For instance, I admired that Baroque cartouche in St. Gallen for years and wanted to copy it so I could own one, too, but when I began to plan to sculpt the relief, my first thought was to update it. So, the central white blob lost its symmetry and became a thought balloon. Then I thought I’d translate the ornate frame into our family vocabulary about the house, our “villa.” (There are quotation marks on the gateposts.) So the swirling curves became question marks and there are more quotation marks in the crown. My tragic ideas come from anger. My mind goes to history for parallels, I suppose for some kind of comfort.
AM: As someone who has talent and aptitude in two forms of artistic communication (sculpture and poetry), I’m curious to hear what the similarities and differences are within your creative processes for each. I also wonder which gives you greater fulfillment or satisfaction—or if you need both?
MB: Making sculpture and writing poetry are, for me, very different. I’ve been a sculptor for forty years and a poet only since I began to study formal poetry in 2003. I have millions of artists and art images in my head and many fewer poems. I think I memorized a couple hundred songs when I was young, but I know only a dozen poems by heart. When I think about my sculpture, I’m drawing in my head, visualizing and turning form. There may be verbal content, humor, or some kind of visual punning going on, but it’s not writing. It’s a whole body awareness. In my imagination I’m standing, maybe for a long time, and my hands are grasping and shaping, my eyes are in constant motion seeing around the form, and my thoughts are free to roam. Since I began writing poetry, I spend much more conscious time throughout the day playing with words and phrases in my head, sometimes while sculpting.
Both are very fulfilling, and my life is infinitely richer now that I have both. I enjoy the concision of poetry, how it allows me to allude to something or to juxtapose multiple ideas, events or feelings without having to explain their connection. And I love the sensuality of poetry, the meter and rhythms and rhymes and speech sounds. In sculpture I can combine the elemental and the intellectual. I love beautiful form, in Arp and Moore as well as Canova and Praxiteles. I think continually of Michelangelo.
AM: You are married to a film writer, director and producer. With all of the artistic talent between the two of you, do you ever collaborate on ideas or inspire each other’s work? What part has each of you played in the other’s artistic success?
MB: My husband and I are very close and, I think, essential to each other’s growth as artists. We are each other’s first readers of everything we’re writing. I’ve worked as production designer on his films, and he’s worked as my project manager on my public commissions. When we met, I could hardly carry on a business phone conversation or keep an agenda in my head, let alone negotiate something. He helped me develop my verbal memory, challenged me to learn to write about my work, and encouraged me to write criticism and reviews. My husband says I taught him to see subtle colors. I’ve supported him as he’s become, through photography between movies, a far better visual artist. He comes from a humanist family and studied the classics at Columbia, and he’s supported me as I received the liberal, humanist education I needed, driven by my own interests, in the years after college and art school.
AM: What are your plans and artistic goals for the coming year and beyond?
MB: I’d like to make more outdoor pieces, somewhat more surreal and humorous pieces, possibly involving poetic texts, for specific sites in our grounds. This might involve some earth-moving and wall-building. I’d like to do more artist-in-residence projects like Pinky for the Brooklyn Historical Society. I have sculpture ideas: some poignant, others subversive, for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Met, and Brookgreen Gardens. Mainly, I’d like to see my best ideas for memorials built. One is a delightful design for a school that incorporates figures of children assembling an allegory of liberal education, learning by doing.
The New York Slavery Memorial is more serious. It addresses the pivotal role that slavery played in the city’s history, economy and growth and invites anyone enjoying New York today—resident, worker or visitor—to confront that fact. Some of the extremely punitive seventeenth and eighteenth century laws restricting the rights and humanity of New York’s slaves will be inscribed in the pavement near the sculptures. The sculptural design embodies the experience of losing ownership of one’s person, and meditates on the loss of identity in history as people commemorate some heroes while ignoring others.
All photography this article courtesy Meredith and Michael Bergmann.