Meet the Hand Behind the Historic Sculptures: Ivan Schwartz

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From the statue of Honest Abe and his horse, Old Bob, standing proud at President Lincoln’s Cottage in DC, to the much-touched bronze of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and the iconic statue of George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon, Schwartz and his team are prolific and talented.

Scroll down for our Q&A. 

David Bruce Smith: On the creative continuum, is there a difference in how you think about conceiving of a work depicting a Khrushchev or a Nixon or a Brezhnev?

IvanSchwartzIvan Schwartz: For me it’s really simple, and I shouldn’t really admit this but the truth is, yes.

When I was very young, I was on the high school wrestling team and I loved sports. I still like sports, but sports don’t really get me as excited as the opportunity to work with the history of the American presidency. When we were working on the figures from the Cold War, they loomed as large to me in my personal life as 20th century baseball superstars Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, or anyone else.

Sports figures are obviously part of popular culture, which I love and am affected by, but I tend to become even more involved with the historical figures I create, whether it’s FDR or Lincoln or even Nixon, who was the first American president I met. It’s just hugely engaging.

David Bruce Smith: According to many accounts, Nixon was not a very likable person. Did that make it harder for you to sculpt him?

Ivan Schwartz: Yes, but then since we’re in business to continue doing what we are doing, I was not in a position to turn down that commission!

PresidentsDavid Bruce Smith: Assuming he was not one of your favorite people, were you tempted to make him appear more appealing by reshaping a jowl or softening a chin? And do you ever do that?

Ivan Schwartz: No I don’t, but that reminds me that, on one occasion, I put a kind of subversive note into the hollow of one of the sculptures. If it ever were to fall and be broken, someone would discover my true feelings about that subject. But with regard to Nixon and others I may not especially like, the challenge is to get them right so that other people have the same visceral reaction I do.

On the other side, many subjects — especially the rich, famous, and powerful — ask me to make changes to improve how they look. Subjects want to lose a few pounds or a few years, or have no wrinkles. That happens all the time. We try to push back as much as we can, but it’s a tough slog.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Historical accuracy is very important though.

Ivan Schwartz: The studio has come to be famous in a small way for finding that historical accuracy. Great institutions help us do that when they invite us to measure George Washington’s clothing, or Lincoln’s, and those are great moment in the life of the studio.

BobNewhartHope Katz Gibbs: How did you get involved in being a sculptor and founding StudioEIS?

Ivan Schwartz: I had traditional training, classical training in sculpture. I had a great teacher who thought I should become the next great figurative sculptor, and I went of to Italy as my teachers did, where I wound up working for a year in an area where sculptors literally had been working in the laboratory of sculptor production for the past 500 years.

After I came back to the United States, within a year or two I found my first commission, which really was the beginning of StudioEIS, in 1976. The commission was for The Iron Range in Minnesota, a local culture and history museum. After I did that project, I never thought I would do another one; I thought I would have to go back to driving taxis and waiting tables. But then about a year later, I got a call from somebody at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum who wanted to know if I’d like to go to Japan.

I went to Japan and did this second commission and after that I invited my brother to join me, since making large works is very labor-intensive. He joined me in Tokyo to help with the installation, and before we knew it there was another commission from NASA, and from another history museum outside Baltimore. At first we  would go from studio to studio and the jobs would be very few and far between.

But then around 1981 we had our first really big commission and I thought this is sticking … this is actually going somewhere. I thought I would be  wealthy since it was such a large thing, but of course that didn’t happen. But still, we were in business, and we had rented a studio. Gradually the level of the work reached a stage where we were also working for architects and even high-end restaurant designers here in New York and Las Vegas. So we were doing a lot of different things.

Before all these commissions came in, I had been working as an abstract painter, and my brother was showing his work as a photographer in galleries in New York, so we had this sort of bifurcated life. But at a certain point, the art world was a bit less appealing, and the invitations to go to great cultural institutions and work with them on projects became more and more fascinating to me, which is where we are today.

ElliottIvanSchwartzHope Katz Gibbs: Your brother Elliot is an artist and your  business partner, you are an artist, and your sister Debra also works in the studio. How does that work, your family dynamic?

Ivan Schwartz: It works with great diplomatic skill at the heart of every single day, which is how we have managed to do this together for almost 40 years. I think it works because we trust each other absolutely, and there’s a great division of labor. My brother can’t do what I do, and I could never sit in front of a computer doing what he does, but the studio and all creative organizations require somebody with a hand on the tiller who keeps the ship steady.

And certainly studios also require project managers and production managers. At StudioEIS, there is a huge burden placed on project management, which is where Deborah works, to transfer the necessary information that becomes the blueprint for making each project. I don’t have a great deal to do with those areas on a day-to-day basis, but after having done it for so long, I know whether we’re ready to go or not.

At this point, we’ve honed our skills, we’ve improved the business model, and we’ve improved the operational gauges. I try to say goodnight to my siblings and not speak to them until the next day. But we love each other, and it’s been great working together over the years.

David Bruce Smith: How do you divide the sculpting work? How much do you do and how much does Elliot do? Do you divide it among the staff? And has the division changed over time?

Ivan Schwartz: That question goes to the heart of who the artist of a piece is. So let’s put that to rest. Rodin or Michelangelo could never produce on their own what they produced. So there have always been large numbers of people in support of large works. When the studio first began, I did all the sculpting, and I trained people to work with me, but at the end of the day I was exhausted and dusty and dirty. Now, 40 years later, I do almost none of the sculpting, but I direct everybody. That suits me fine because I work with a great bunch of people, and I think my eye is more valuable then my skillset as a sculptor today.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How many people work at StudioEIS? And how many works has StudioEIS produced since 1976?

Ivan Schwartz: The number of people who work with us varies based on the project demand, but during the summer of 2015 there are about 10-15 people working in the studio. And to date, we have produced hundreds of projects, of varying themes — from history to sports to pop culture.

In fact, we realized not too long ago that we have produced more bronze sculptors of important historical figures than any studio in American history. Right now there are more than 100 bronze sculptures that the studio has produced, and there are hundreds of other figures that we have produced for museums.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How much does one of these sculptures cost?

Ivan Schwartz: The cost varies greatly. We make figures for museum exhibitions, which are exhibited indoors, and several hundred hours goes into the making of every single one of them. Bronze figures could take thousands of hours and range in price from about $20,000-$25,000 for one of our standard museum figures to anywhere from $125,000-$200,000 for a bronze sculpture.

David Bruce Smith: Could the average person come to you and say, “I’d like a bronze of my uncle”?

Ivan Schwartz: They could, though it’s not my favorite thing to do because it involves dealing with personalities. I discovered when I was living in Italy and had my very first commission, making a sculpture for a family friend, that it made me so nervous … would they like it or wouldn’t they. I actually vowed to never do a portrait again, but here we are all these years later doing hundreds of these things.

The personal element makes it more difficult than working with curators and empirical information. But yes, we accept commissions from private clients. In fact, a private client came to the studio just a week ago to commission a full-size bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln!

Hope Katz Gibbs: What has been your longest-running project?

Ivan Schwartz: The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is the largest project of its type and the longest-running project that we ever worked on. We spent roughly two and half years on one project — 42 life-size bronze sculptors of the signers of the US Constitution.

That project came at an amazing moment. We used to have a studio not far from here with a full view of the World Trade Center, and we were at work on the Constitution project when the Twin Towers went down in 2001. I know that an awful lot of people who worked in the studio on that project found great solace in working on this project for the Constitution Center at that particular time.

David Bruce Smith: Of the hundreds of projects you’ve done, what is your favorite and why?

Ivan Schwartz: I love the Constitution Center project because it was a great challenge. We had a certain amount of time in which to produce all of this work — we had to double the staff size and find sculptors to help us from all over the world. I loved that challenge and I loved the work, and what I felt when the work was actually finished came as a surprise. I expected to see an empty room with old-fashioned bronze sculptures. Instead, the figures we created became in a way the signature piece of the Constitution Center. We saw school groups just mobbing all of these old guys, our Founding Fathers. That was so unexpected.

Maybe the singular figure I love most is the Lincoln on the steps of the New York Historical Society. I think it’s a very beautiful piece and it’s very evocative. And I love the idea of Lincoln in New York.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Your sculptures are in such amazing places — including Mount Vernon, where George and Martha Washington and their grandchildren are touched and beloved. What happens to these sculptures as they age?

Ivan Schwartz: Some people like the wear and tear. It indicates that people are using them or are getting close to them. But sometimes it goes too far. Benjamin Franklin had his glasses ripped off of his head several times, and so many people touched his face that he looked like he had experienced an atomic bomb. So there is a point to which the detrition goes too far. Franklin is probably the most touched figure except for perhaps Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, where 4 million people a year visit, and people love that piece. But for the most part people are respectful and the sculptures survive.

David Bruce Smith: For people who want to become sculptors themselves, what is your advice?

Ivan Schwartz: My initial response to your question is so curmudgeonly and makes me feel so old, but it’s that you really have to think about what you’re getting into. You see, when you’re very young, you’re just full of ambition and the thrill and the challenge of the work. You travel the world, you go and ingest everything that makes you excited about what you’re doing.

Then 20 and 30 years later, you have to live by your wits, and live by the product of your endeavor. We’ve managed to do that, but the rate of attrition for people who study art and then give it up because they can’t make it is huge. That’s the boring, real-world response. My deeper answer is you have to be willing to get stuck in it, be willing to fail. And if need be, willing to change what you do because it may or may not work.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Clearly you’ve hit what appears to be the pinnacle of your career. What lies ahead for you?

Ivan Schwartz: The Statue of Liberty has been done. It would be great to have a challenge at that scale, but we have an enormous amount of work in front of us right now for great American institutions, and we’re very excited about all of these projects. All of that work represents almost three years into the future, so this really is a great moment for us.

Click here to learn more about Ivan Schwartz and his work: www.studioeis.com.