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, Ivan Schwartz and his team at StudioEIS in Brooklyn, NY, are prolific and talented. It was a pleasure to interview him last month at his studio. Scroll down for our Q&A. And be sure to watch our interview on GratefulAmericanTV.com.
All month long we’re celebrating our nation’s independence! We mark the occasion on our website with a new column: Words of Wisdom. We hope you’ll start your day with inspiration from the Founding Fathers and Mothers, US presidents and first ladies, and other influential Americans who helped shape the nation.
Here’s one of our favorites from Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.”
Happy Birthday™ America! — David Bruce Smith and the Grateful American™ team
With sculptures ranging from Washington to Nixon, Bob Newhart to "Bewitched," Ivan Schwartz brings American history to life
Grateful American™ Series
The Spotlight Is on Ivan Schwartz: The Man Behind the Nation's Most Iconic Sculptures
How long does it take to create one of these amazing sculptures? And is there anything that Schwartz doesn’t like about the process of sculpting some of history’s greatest figures?
Scroll down for the Q&A.
David Bruce Smith: On the creative continuum, is there a difference in how you think about conceiving of a work depicting a widely admired figure like Lincoln or Washington versus a more controversial figure such as Nixon, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev?
Ivan 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!
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 moments in the life of the studio.
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. 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.
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.