Interview with the Artist

Thyra Wexler with Shadow.jpg

Thyra: I started at the age of 10. I had an aesthetic experience in school. We were assigned photographs to make pastels. They gave me a picture of Niagara Falls and while I was doing the boiling rapids down at the bottom of the falls I said, isn’t this wonderful—look what I can do and I just was thrilled right to the core. That was a moment of revelation.


When I was 13 I had another one of those moments when I was in another art class. I was drawing a flower and using crayon and I suddenly discovered how to create light and shadow and I said, isn’t this magnificent? I gradually realized that this is what I could do and I looked around me to see what the other kids were doing and I realized I could do it better than almost anyone else. I just took to it. There were also other things in school and it became a part of me and I started doing things at home. I remember when the World’s Fair in 1939 came. I did a very careful ruled line rendition of the Administration Building in pencil. That was exciting too. I did a water color of my grandfather too. As a child, art was mainly what I was interested in.


Dan: How did your parents feel towards what you were doing?


Thyra: I was encouraged. They thought it was exciting that I had that talent. I think they were glad that I was interested in something.


Dan: Yes


Thyra: So in high school I became secretary of the art squad and majored in art courses and met other people who were interested in art . I wanted to go to Cooper Union but it didn’t work out so I went to the National Academy which at that time was all the way in upper Manhattan on 109th Street.


Dan: That was quite a trip from Brooklyn!


Thyra: An hour and a half by subway; but the Academy was not really much of a school –it was on its last legs. They had a tutorial system of teaching. I would be there every day working and the teacher would come around once a week and criticize. I started drawing from casts, that’s how they started you off there and I did that for six months. Then they let me go into the life drawing class. That was in the morning and in the afternoon I did still life painting and sometimes portrait painting, so it was good training in that I worked every day.


Dan: Was it exciting to be involved with that?


Thyra: It was exciting because it was something I wanted to do, but the school itself was not exciting..I felt like I was on the outside of things.


Dan: In what way?


Thyra: Because the exciting art that was going on was Picasso, Matisse and Roualt; they were the big icons at the time. I went over to the the Art Student’s League one day thinking that I would transfer but it was so jam-packed that I couldn’t see working there.


Dan: What is the Art Student's League?


Thyra: It’s a very old institution; a professional art school where you would sign up for a class with a particular teacher in the same tutorial system and they were always so filled with people that I shied away from it. I also considered studying with Hans Hoffman, who was a very well known teacher at the time. He was one of the refugees from Hitler who enriched our cultural life. He was an abstract expressionist and a very powerful teacher and I’m really kind of glad that I didn’t go there because he would have overwhelmed me. So the kind of learning I got was by doing—wandering around Manhattan, going to the galleries and going to the museums (which were not crowded in those days- in the 1940’s), getting art books, immersing myself in the subject. In those days art was not in the universities—you had to go to a professional school. It wasn’t until after WW2 that universities took over art training.


Dan: So there was no such thing as a degree in art at the time.


Thyra: If there was, I didn’t know about it; certainly not in New York City. I also went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School which was in its second year at the time. I didn’t know it was that new and that was interesting. Not only did I go there every day to paint but they had free models that we could draw from every Sunday. So I was going to school six days a week and the drawing training was irreplaceable. I had a teacher there, George Picken, who had some reputation at the time, who recommended that I go to the School for Art Studies, which was one of those new post war art schools that sprang up because of the GI Bill of Rights. That’s where I met your father again for the second time.


Dan: Where did you meet him for the first time?


Thyra: We went to high school together. He was a year ahead of me so we came in contact because of the art program at the school. That’s where I knew Danny Woskoff also. In fact, Danny and I were good friends and fellow artists and maintained contact all the time. So then I was at the School for Art Studies for a while and became interested in doing abstraction. I did a kind of hybrid abstraction, doing a figure and breaking up the backgrounds. I fiddled around with expressionism during my whole time as a painter. I did take one course in sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum at night after Dad and I were married and living in Brooklyn Heights. Sculpture was very easy for me, so it didn’t seem to be much of a challenge.


Dan: As compared with painting?


Thyra: I could knock out a figure and knock out a head without trying very hard. I did one portrait of the model that the teacher, who was a sculptor named Milton Hebald, thought so well of that he offered to make a plaster cast of it for me. But I wasn’t interested. I wanted to master what I couldn’t do, and that was painting. I struggled with painting for a very long time. When we lived in Michigan, I painted and painted and painted.


Dan: And you only painted in the abstract mode?


Thyra: I was never totally abstract. I was always more or less an abstract expressionist. I was influenced by the German expressionists using color to create form, nevertheless I wanted a recognizable form and I did that all through the Michigan years. I studied at Michigan State, taking a few courses in ceramics. I wasn’t that good at it. And then we came to New York. Well, the paintings kept getting more and more three dimensional and I wanted to dig more and more into the canvas. In 1960 a friend from Woodstock named Ben Johnson - remember him?


Dan: Yes, yes.


Thyra: His wife Alice gave me a hunk of butternut wood and said, why don’t you try sculpture? So I bought some wood carving tools and started carving and fell in love with it and did that for a couple of years. I worked up a group of woodcarvings and then had to stop because of bursitis, but I was hooked on sculpture so I started clay modeling, and that was that.


Dan: That’s what you do to this day.


Thyra: I gradually stopped painting. There was a period of a year or two that was overlapping between the two mediums. I couldn’t visualize myself giving up painting after having done it all my life, but after a while it became irrelevant. I had to stop. Sculpture took over and I started creating very representational still lifes. Nobody else that I knew of was doing it at the time .


Dan: Did you start out by doing representational sculpture?


Thyra: Well, with wood it was hard. I kept creating recognizable forms but with wood you had to be somewhat abstract because wood has a mind of its own and I wasn’t good enough. I was very interested in medieval woodcarvers who could do anything they wanted because they had the training, and the type of wood they used was also more malleable. They did laminating as well. I just wasn’t trained that way, so I did what I was able to do.

I switched to clay. One of the earliest pieces I did was a still life of an apple on a drape. I had set up a very red apple on a piece of green cloth, and next to it was the finished sculpture done in gray-green plasticene. It was interesting that when people looked, they didn’t notice the colorful original, because they were so taken with the sculpture.


Dan: So that showed you how powerful art was.


Thyra: Well, it showed me what could happen when the forms were so complete and integrated among themselves. I was always interested in the content and the form in equilibrium, as opposed to what was happening in the art world at that time, where the content was secondary to the formal aspect of the work. In painting everything had to be related to the surface of the canvas. Of course, your father also violated the custom of the time, developing deep space in his work.


Dan: Were you loners in that regard?


Thyra: We thought we were at the time. A few years later, though, Gabriel Laderman invited us to a party in New York City. What he had done was to invite all the people he knew who were doing realist art, and we realized we were not alone. Eventually we went to weekly meetings at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway where the realist artists got together. Out of that came all the realist galleries in Soho back in the 60’s including the one we helped form, the First Street Gallery, which started out on the Bowery, and moved to Prince Street, and then West Broadway. So that was a very fruitful experience and we just kept doing this type of work, and have been doing it ever since. My subject matter had been relatively stable as you know. You have been the main model as far as the figure work. Still life was the main subject for many years, and I never stopped drawing.


Dan: You’ve experimented with a number of different media.


Thyra: Well, with the sculpture I started out casting in concrete because it’s very inexpensive, as well as being a permanent medium. That was fun for awhile and I did the wall, which was a lot of fun. It only took six months - it’s hard to believe now that I could work so much. I did a lot of work in a relatively short period of time compared to these days. That life size wax figure took me 18 months.


Dan: It’s huge.


Thyra: Which isn’t that long considering it was done in wax, which is very slow working.


Dan: It seems to take a long time to do a realist sculpture.


Thyra: Well, it’s because it’s a development. The way I work is from the inside out - starting with empty space, building an armature, building out from the center. It takes a long time to find the outlines, the final outlines in three dimensions. That’s why very often I would do relief , which is simpler. I have a talent for it which I believe comes from my painting background, because it is a hybrid between painting and sculpture. The concern is with one view and building out from the base or background.


Dan: It takes a great deal of talent in order to make three dimensional feeling from what is basically a two dimensional object.


Thyra: Well, it’s a very interesting problem. I tried to teach it to students when I was teaching at Brooklyn College in the 70’s. I discovered it was a much tougher problem than having them do three dimensional work because they found it very hard to grasp the idea of compressing dimensions into 50% more or less.


Dan: It’s a matter of fooling the eye?


Thyra: Well, it was a formula because there is everything from low relief to high relief. If you remember that large relief I did of the three figures that you were a part of, there was everything from low relief to almost three dimensions. I did at least two sculptures that fooled the eye, one that began from a flat surface up to the foreground with a fully three dimensional apple on the drape.


Dan: Yes, it’s wonderful the way it seems to shoot out at you.


Thyra: Yes, I really enjoyed doing them. Still life was always an important subject matter. When I started having muscle problems, I switched to pastels for a while, taking the still life as my material. I combined my ability with drawing with the use of color, working with color in a totally different way than I had been trained in. I used tone first and then local color built up layer on layer, keeping it simple and having it come out complex in the end.


Dan: It’s a lot more complicated when you’re dealing with a curved object with its own shadows.


Thyra: It’s the light and shadow that make the whole idea. Without light you don’t have color and without light and shadow you don’t have a three dimensional effect. If you took away the shadows, everything would be flat. I’ve always been attracted to chiaroscuro, pushing the light and shadows as much as I could, but once I caught on to the fact that I could create a still life by thinking in terms of tones and local color rather than trying to get complicated and breaking things up into different colors to create form - once I simplified it in my own mind I was able to go ahead and do it. Just keep it simple and work with one color at a time. I would make a black and white drawing on a page and then I would do like children do in coloring books – if the apple was red, I would color in red; if the pear was green, I would color in green. It was just a question of putting in a flat tone and then some shadows. I would say to myself there are warm shadows and there are cool shadows, so I would take a brown and do warm shadows over the whole drawing and spray it and then put in light tones to create chiaroscuro, spray, put in a color, spray, etc. By thinking in terms of simple one on one I was able to function. That was the only way I could handle color and once I discovered that about myself I was able to go ahead and make good pastels. Any questions?


Dan: For you, and I think for any artist it takes a great deal of creativity to accomplish a work of art. Where does this creativity come from?


Thyra: It’s a given. There was a period of time when I wasn’t feeling very well and I lost it, and it was at that point in time that I realized what a given it was. I couldn’t focus and I realized how powerful it really is. You slip into a different mode of thinking and a different mode of awareness when you’re working. Everything comes together. I’d always taken that for granted until I momentarily lost it and couldn’t function as an artist.


Dan: Was that frightening?


Thyra: Well, I felt like that feeling that your life is over - it’s all gone now, I’m getting old and this is what it means to get old – you lose things. But it came back when I started feeling better.


Dan: Do you take it less for granted now?


Thyra: I’m more aware that it exists, yes, but it was always such a part of my life that I never thought of that. I suppose it’s like being an athlete who has his reflexes and never thinks about it because that’s the way he is. Anyone who has a talent for something and exercises it doesn’t realize how different it is from what other people can and cannot do. That’s the way it is.