Though NOCCA students work with a master artist/teacher for three or four years, the opportunity to see a significant body of their teachers’ life’s work is still a rare treat. The retrospective of Visual Arts faculty member Ersy Schwartz at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art was not what Visual Arts students expected at all.
Ms. Schwartz has taught sculpture at NOCCA since 2000, when she returned to her hometown after a long tenure teaching at Cooper Union in New York. Following the opening weekend of her new show, she led NOCCA students on a walk-through of her work, answering their questions and opening their eyes to her own artistic path and inspiration.
Many of the students had not seen her work before. To quote the New York Times, which recently profiled both Ms. Schwartz and photographer Josephine Sacabo, what students saw were “all manner of fantastic creatures,” “meticulous, mischievous pieces” crafted out of a variety of materials or cast in bronze.
What Level III student Devin Jennings learned, “made me feel like I have to up the ante.” “When she compliments my work now,” added Level III student Kaelin Baudier, “I’ll feel even better.”
In talking to students after the walk-through, what struck them was their mentor’s attention to details, the patience to create such beautiful work over several years, and use of imagery, scale space, materials and structure.
“I don’t really like bases,” Ersy had told them during their visit. “I like the pedestal to become part of the work so it all lives on its own.” Students noticed the base might be flush to the ground or on the ceiling. “Her work was a composition in space, without paint or canvas,” Devin found. “I will definitely think differently about space from now on.” “I could walk around a piece seven times and still find something new,” noted Kaelin.
But Ms. Schwartz’s use of scale and imagery sparked the most questions. “Why such small cows?” one student asked. “If you change scale, you change the way you look at an object and how you relate to the space you are in. It puts you in a difference space,” she answered. And a different space opens viewers’ eyes to the sculptor’s imagery and sense of humor. Her work, as Kaelin found, is both “twisted and whimsical, like a Tim Burton house.”
The pieces which found their inspiration in the lives of the Saints and New Orleans, such as St. Agatha and Saint Anne Parade, resonated with students, as did a work called Ship of Fools with exquisitely crafted wooden hull, a seemingly weightless anchor made of bronze, and miniature umbrellas symbolizing for one student spirits floating off.
“I could see how far beyond expectations Ms. Schwartz goes to express her art. Sometimes people don’t understand how long it takes to do art,” believes Hikich Turner. “My teachers here are my role models. They understand how I think, motivate, understand. Her work made me think about the different ways I can take a piece now. I want to be like Ms. Schwartz when I grow up.” NOCCA’s master/apprentice model of learning: at work.