Ivan Schwartz is a sculptor, painter, and inventor who has always been interested in what lies in his peripheral vision—exploring the shorthand of visual language as a storyteller.
That ambition is clearly what draws us to his work, which is on public display around the country—including at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and gardens, President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and Frederick Douglass at the New York Historical Society—in addition to dozens more.
Schwartz’s skill was featured in the History Channel’s “Save Our History Series,“in “The Search For George Washington,” a documentary about the making of the forensic George Washington sculptures for Mount Vernon.
So it was a pleasure to interview the artist who received his degree in sculpture from The College of Fine Arts at Boston University before spending a year working and studying in Pietrasanta, Italy, in the early 1970s.
He was also the recipient of a distinguished alumni award from BU in 2003, and he was a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts until the end of the 2009 academic year. He was also a founding board member of Art Omi, an international arts workshop located in NY State.
Scroll down for a Q&A with Schwartz and our Inkandescent art director, illustrator Michael Gibbs.
Inside the Sculptor’s Studio
A Q&A With Sculptor Ivan Schwartz and Illustrator Michael Gibbs
Michael Gibbs: How did you get your first commission?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: A bit of luck is always a factor. I had a friend who was an exhibition designer working on a new cultural history museum in Minnesota, where I was living at the time. He saw my work and asked if I’d be interested in creating a proposal for some sculptures he had designed as a part of this new museum. A year later I was working on the project.
Michael Gibbs: You have crafted many sculptors of famous historical figures and scenes. Tell us about your studio.
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: The studio, in its nearly 40 years of continuous operation, has created more historical sculpture works than any studio in American history, including the largest project of its type for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We have worked on hundreds of projects in that time and have now produced more than a hundred life-sized or larger-than-life historical sculptures. It’s not a numbers game, but the fact that there is demand does suggest we’re doing something right. The “something” quite possibly has to do with a real love for history in general and the desire, whenever possible, to put a new face on history.
Michael Gibbs: How did you get involved in creating the bronze sculptures for some of the nation’s most notable historic sites?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: I had a teacher who said to me once, If you hang around long enough, someone will take you seriously.” I don’t think it’s that simple or obvious, but there’s something in that, provided you produce great work. So in that sense, we’ve always strived to produce that absolute best within this genre of sculpture production, and then of course there has been a real demand for what we do. After we produced the National Constitution Center project, which opened in 2003, there was a burgeoning interest in StudioEIS’ work coming from many great cultural institutions—Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Monticello, The Richmond State Capitol, The New York Historical Society, and on and on.
Michael Gibbs: Do you have a favorite piece? If so, which one and why?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: I have a few favorite pieces or projects for different reasons. My all-time favorite project, which also incorporates some favorite sculptures, is the National Constitution Center. When we won the competition to create this work, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in such an old-fashioned thing. As it turned out, this group of 42 sculptures of the signers of the US Constitution is the high point of most visitors’ experience at this highly interactive museum. So, I loved the fact that it not only was “popular,” but that it began to show me that we could actually “activate the past” via our work, which is “not nothing,” as I like to say. My other favorite sculpture is actually the clay original that was the prototype piece used to create the bronze of Frederick Douglass for the New York Historical Society. It’s hard to explain, but I feel Douglass is there and present in the clay version more so than in the bronze.
Michael Gibbs: You also have created many sculptures of sports figures. Tell us about that genre.
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: Yes, the world of sports is huge and not only represents another part of the economy for the studio, but it brings many challenges that hold my interest. I’m not a big sports fan, although I was on the wrestling and gymnastic teams in high school. I’ve found that making a great sports figure can be very difficult, though on occasion worth all the effort. We’ve just finished the most challenging sports project in our history for the San Francisco 49ers. They’re building a new stadium in Santa Clara and asked us to create 26 highly animated figures of their Hall of Famers for a new museum/hall of fame that will be a part of the stadium. We’ve also worked for the NY Yankees and NIKE as well as the NCAA and many many college halls of fame.
Michael Gibbs: How long does it take to create one of these amazing sculptures?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: Although we created 42 bronze sculptures in two years, which obviously was an astonishing effort of scale; we generally tell people that it takes somewhere between 10 or 11 months and 14 months to produce a bronze sculpture. Of course the molding and bronze casting add months to our process. Interior museum figures take considerably less time to produce.
Michael Gibbs: What is the hardest part about what you do? Is there anything you don’t like about the process? If so, what is it? And how do you cope with the frustration?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: The hardest part of what we do is really on the business side of things. We don’t have what anyone would consider a “normal” supply of work, and therefore as a business model, this is simply a terrible business to be in. We struggle maintaining ourselves on a constant basis, but although neither my brother nor I had any business training, we learned the necessary discipline necessary to sustain the business.
This is, of course, very frustrating at times. We currently have two major projects under contract. Because they are public projects, they are subject to all the vagaries of how things get done in the public sector—mostly very slowly. So, it’s one thing to do a project and realize your anticipated revenue in a year but it becomes quite another thing to realize that same revenue in three years, let’s say. Our overhead doesn’t automatically adjust to this reality, so it becomes quite a juggling act to keep all the balls in the air. Survival has an air of “badge of courage” about it.
Michael Gibbs: Your business includes several of your family members: your brother Elliot (who is president of StudioEIS, pictured right from an article that appeared in the New York Times) and sister Debra Schwartz (the studio’s production manager). It seems that a passion and talent for art runs in the family. What inspired you all to find careers in this profession? And is it tough to work with family members?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: Yes, that’s right. We work together as family and the people we employ also feel like family. Funnily enough, in our family that was the way it has always been done. Many members of many generations of our family have worked together.
In our case, it was expeditious since my brother Elliot (pictured below) has a complementary training as an industrial designer, painter, and photographer, and Debra (picture right) had training in arts management. Trust has never been a question, which made working together a no-brainer, but as we had no business training, this is where we have erred.
Although we have learned to work together for nearly 40 years, this marriage of convenience and talent does not always fit the bill. I’m not the ideal partner for my brother, and likewise he’s not the ideal partner for me. We’ve learned the business and I believe we all know that there are others better suited to do some of the important jobs necessary to sustain the studio and create a vision for the future. That said, the financial limitations often make it impossible to simply reach out and bring those people into the family or the business.
So, while my mother, the Sunday painter, encouraged all of us to be involved in the arts, my parents really had no idea of what the business side might entail. I think we would have benefited by more business acumen much earlier in our careers.
Michael Gibbs: For those who aspire to have a career as a sculptor, what do you advise?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: My advice is very simple. You must be highly creative and disciplined. These qualities are often not found in one person and you will only find out what you’re made of after having taken the plunge. If you don’t leap into the void you’ll never know what you might have done, but don’t take it lightly—it’s not about “lifestyle”; in fact it’s just about the toughest lifestyle you can lead if you’re in it for the long haul.
Funnily enough I’ve met many people who see me or have seen me and think I’ve led a wonderful charmed life with great personal freedom—all true, except they have no idea what risks have been taken and how hard it is to sustain a life in the arts.
Michael Gibbs: Now that you have accomplished so much in your career—what lies ahead?
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz: What lies ahead is obviously more! StudioEIS will continue producing—we have numerous important commissions in the next two years. I have always wanted to do other things, too. For at least the past 10 years, I’ve taken on several projects that are worlds apart from my daily work, and more than anything I look forward to finding the next one of those to occupy my mind. I think I’ve got a few ideas, but now I test drive them for a while before leaping into the breach.
The cartoon of Ivan Schwartz above is by Margie Greve; all the other photos are by StudioEIS.
To learn more, visit studioeis.com.