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Student Interview Series #1: Maud Bryt, Sculptor

MFA Students Maud Bryt and Kathryn Beckwith were kind enough to allow me to speak with them about their work and photograph some of their sculptures.  This is the beginning of a series of student interviews that will showcase the strength of the work being made in the ateliers, as well as serve as a link with our community.

Student Interview Series #1: Maud Bryt, Sculptor

The giant figure stood taller than a man, tall enough to not feel swallowed by the twenty foot high ceilings of the Chester French Studio.  Its head lay unceremoniously at its feet.  Frayed bits of burlap and rough chips of plaster contrasted with the chalky smooth planes of the form.  What looked like a tower was surely figurative in reference, as it possessed a stance that seemed familiar and historical at the same time.

I visited sculptor and MFA II student Maud Bryt in her studio below the Daniel Chester French to talk about her work and process.  She spoke with me about the creation of her large hollow plaster pieces and about her interests as a sculptor.  Down in the dusty workstations underneath the Studio School, she creates amongst piles of old flannel shirts, rags and towels, and mounds of plaster figures in states of movement and arrest.  A bolt of burlap leans against the wall, and drawings and paintings cover the walls, of figures removed in the distance, and faces pressed against the picture plane.  Her pieces, unlike blown up plaster molds from clay, are built structurally and directly by making hollowed plaster forms using the rags and t-shirts as a kind of support for the shells,  which she then melds together with burlap.  The result is a combination of roughhewn surfaces and angular joints alongside smoothed curves.  One of the most interesting pieces, a self-portrait, was turned on its side so that an arm like protuberance cast bold shadows on the white surfaces below.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

C: So tell me about the large pieces upstairs- they are primarily from the human body, right?

M: Yes, I started out working with clay from the figure in class, and I began feeling like the clay was soft and almost too much like flesh.  I found myself trying to copy the human body and it felt wrong.  Like I was making a big doll, or a pretend human instead of sculpture.  So I began to look for another language- and when I was casting from my clay pieces I fell in love with plaster.  I love how plaster is soft and then all of a sudden hardens up.  There is an element of ‘just decide.’

C: Make a decision and stand by it.

M: But at the same time there is a great opportunity to edit the plaster, as you saw upstairs.  I love the consistency of plaster, you can make a decision and stick with it, or change as necessary.  With plaster I’m not limited.  When you work with armatures and clay there is a top and bottom. With plaster I can turn it in space, cut off parts, and change it when I need to.

C: so you needed to distance yourself a little bit from the reality of the figure in front of you.

M: Exactly, and for me plaster could not look like flesh.  Well, for some people’s hands it can.  But for me it is automatically abstracted instead of just trying to be a copy.

C: Does that have something to do with possibly the colder nature of the material and even the color of it, as opposed to clay and how it’s warmer, earthier; more flesh like?

M: Yes, It made me have to find an equivalent with something different.  One of the things that took me away from clay, and got me thinking differently  was Garth’s Marathon.  We made figures out of wood, cardboard, all kinds of stuff.  That got me thinking more abstractly, so when I found the plaster, I knew I needed to build a language with it, and not just struggle to make it real… but actually, these feel real, too.  Just in a different way.

C: Well, I’m interested in that too.  The process of translating.  Taking something in, it goes in your brain, and then it can come out a different way through your hands.

M: In my head, it’s still very much a person.  Even those backs, I’m calling them backs, what I’m realizing is that they work better when I don’t know what I’m trying to do.  They work better when I’m not trying to make something.  Like when I made the first back, it was really 2 halves of a leg, a big leg.  I was trying to put the 2 halves together, then I laid them open and all of a sudden I realized it was a back and just ran with it.  But if I’d said, “Ok, I’m going to make a back,” it wouldn’t have come out nearly as well.   Here’s the scapula, here’s the backbone, here’s the muscles, it wouldn’t have worked.

C: So you’re kind of talking about embracing the accident in sculptural form?

M: Yeah, but it’s a controlled accident.  I know I’m making forms, but I’m making parts that are good forms in themselves.  So, in a way, no matter how I put them together they will be a head or a body form.  The human body is a container and very much full.  I put the forms together very much like collage, and I’ll be surprised what they turn into.  One of my in the round pieces at home looks like a head, and from the other side like two figures embracing.  And the reason that can work is because every part is human and it just depends on the proportions whether it’s a head, an arm, or a back.

C: So when you don’t achieve that kind of duality, do you just scrap it or do you keep working on it…?

M: Well that’s what happened upstairs.  I’ve been working on this 6 and a half, 7 foot figure since last spring.  The model hasn’t been here since spring, but I’ve been working on it consistently with other things, and it’s just been bugging me and bugging me and getting stiffer and getting less ‘real’ the more I work on it.  So, I chopped off the head and turned it upside down.  So yeah, in a way I wasn’t getting a duality.  I would come up to it and say ‘standing woman figure’ and ‘BLEH’ and it just wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t worth looking at for more than a moment because I knew what it was right away.

C: So it just became time to make a large decision?

M: I realized it needed to open up so that I could engage with it again.  When I look at art, I like to be able to do something.  I don’t want to be just told something by the artist.  For myself, I want to be invited into the excitement.

C: So here’s a question for you.  You find the piece tightening and closing in, and you know you need to make a decision to chop,  change or move.  After that recognition, does the process become about knowing when to stop? Or is it then approaching it in a different way to complete it?

M: It’s a state of mind, and I don’t know about completion. I haven’t finished any of these.

C: So they are all in flux right now?

M: These pieces, they sort of wear away and they get dirty, and I don’t know how yet to prepare to take them into the world, or how I’m going to finish them.  How they can be at a point when they can go out into the world.

C: Do you think about color?

M: I do, and that’s an interesting question.  Just yesterday I was Garth’s lecture at Yale, he uses color, and color was on my mind.  I paint also, but these are based on Greek sculpture, so they make sense in white to me.  But some of the new ones, I wonder, could they be in color and what would that do?

C: I was thinking the other day about Greek statues, and how many were so brightly colored and jeweled and now we view them as incredibly pure and white.

M: Isn’t that weird?  I just read Richard Neer, and he was sure that the ancient artists, what they wanted from sculpture was effect.   The ‘wow effect’, just ‘wonder.’  So much of our culture is based on how white they are when found, which is just as real for us, if not more real, than the way they were.

C: Which brings us back to dualities.

M: And what does it mean?  It’s so interesting, the whole white versus color, I have a feeling that it will burst in at some point.

M: The reason that the sculptures are this scale is because they are like being close to a person.  When a person is far away…

C: You become more of an observer.

M:  Yeah, but when you’re close, it is more abstract- you look down and a person’s feet are tiny and the shoulders are big.  Things shift.  That’s because I spent the last 20 years raising kids; my whole world is being at close range with people.

C: Intimacy with people?

M: Because it’s all family and friends and people I’m very close with.  I’m not in a public sphere with a job or in my life, so my whole life is very intimate, so I think that’s why they are this scale.

C: Do you see that is a really important thematic element to the work? Proximity?  Beause even when I step away from some of these they appear close and almost warm.

M: That’s how things appear when you’re really close up, even for the small pieces.  It has a perspective built in, which was part of what we were talking about; how do you look at sculpture?  It’s a scale issue.

Snapshots From NYSS

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