By: Megan Pasche
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Nestled on a quaint little street in Youngstown, New York, sits the studio of Susan Geissler. It’s immediately obvious that an artist inhabits the space: colourful sculptures sit in the window, staring out and inviting you to walk in. When you do enter, it’s like walking down a runway filled with somebody’s memories: life-size sculptures fill the hall; each one with their own unique story.
But let’s back up a bit.
Susan had her first foray into the art of sculpture in high school, while working on a paper maché project. She says, “I wanted to make all the animals in the world; I just loved paper maché so much, and after high school, I continued on with it.” She continued on with the paper maché and it eventually evolved into a more sophisticated medium. She went from paper maché, to pulpy sculpture materials, to chicken wire, then hydrocal and forton, and then eventually bronze. She attended college in a fine arts program, where she studied illustration, drawing and design, and began her career as an artist in 1984. For the next five years, Susan’s sculptures were displayed at many outdoor art events, bringing her creations to millions of people. These days, her art is primarily displayed in galleries. She also produces numerous commissioned pieces. Just some of the places her pieces appear are the Disney World Gallery in Orlando, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in Miami, The George Bush Presidential Library and to get a little bit closer to home, the Tuscarora Heroes Monument and the Freedom Crossing Monument, both located in Lewiston, New York.
When asked why she likes to work in this particular medium, Susan relates, “I like the fact that you can walk around it. It’s three dimensional work, so you can experience every side of it to make it alive and living.”
When you go to see Susan’s installations in Lewiston (and seriously, you should go see them, and while you are there, stop by her studio which is just down the street in Youngstown), you will be amazed at the amount of emotion she is able to convey in a bronze sculpture. For a piece like the Freedom Crossing, which depicts runaway slaves making an escape from a slave catcher, there was a whole process Susan went through to help her get into the right mindset to work on the piece. She shares, “it had to tell a story emotionally. With the Freedom Crossing, I wanted to be able to convey what it must have been like to run for your life from people who were chasing you because of your colour. So, what I had to do was scare the daylights out of myself one night. It was getting dark and I went down a path that was kind of overgrown, so I started going down the side of this hill; and I recalled this memory of being a little kid and being chased by these little boys through the woods. I remembered that fear, and was able to stir up that emotion.” She continues with the story saying, “I just got this feeling, especially for the slave mother; she’s out of breath, she’s afraid, she has her baby, and she’s trying to get the baby into the boat.” One can only imagine the terror of that situation, but you look at the slave mother’s face in this sculpture, and you can see Susan was able to capture this fear perfectly.
Susan’s other larger than life sculpture in Lewiston, the Tuscarora Heroes Monument, depicts a moment in the War of 1812, when members of the Tuscarora Nation created a diversion and helped rescue trapped residents during a surprise British attack.
Many of the other sculptures Susan produces tell stories from her own past; they are snapshots in time. She has one sculpture called “The Potato Man” that she says was made in the spirit of her grandfather. She has another that depicts the memory of her brother catching his first big fish. She notes, “there is a lot of childhood reflection in my personal work; they tell stories that make me happy. There is no bad news in my sculptures really.”
We talk briefly about the role art plays in society, and Susan notes, “I’m very upset about the fact that schools are taking art away…art is the most important thing because everything we sit on, write with, eat with, look at, drive in, wear…they are all art related concepts; they are things that an artist was able to visualize. Taking away art is like taking away the core of the world.”
If you are interested in learning more about Susan and her work, check out:
Her studio, located at 433 Main Street, Youngstown
Freedom Crossing (located on the bank of the Niagara River) and Tuscarora Heroes Monument (located at Center Street and Portage Road) in Lewiston, New York.
Her website: susangeissler.com
What Exactly Is Involved in the Sculpture Process?
It’s amazing to learn just how many steps are involved in getting a sculpture to its finished stage. Susan starts with a concept piece in order to get an overall feel for the sculpture, then after that, moves on to a model, which is normally about 20 inches, and is able to have all necessary details. From there, that piece gets shipped to an enlarging firm, where the sculpture is scanned via laser. Then a robot cuts into these large blocks of dense Styrofoam, cutting it away a bit at a time, until a figure emerges. Then it goes back to Susan, where she can cut away at it, making it perfect. From there, it goes to a mold maker where it is coated in a rubber like material, which is then coated in a fiberglass or plaster shell to help hold its shape. Once this is done, it gets pulled off the clay, essentially leaving a negative image of the sculpture. The mold is then filled with wax, which once cooled and hardened, it is removed from the mold. After it is cleaned up, it should then be an exact replica of the original piece.
Wax channels are added to the model, as well as a plug, so that a liquid shell material can be added which will fill the hollow wax figure. So, the next step involves taking this mold, and dipping it into a slurry solution, and then coating it with grains of silica material. This step is repeated around three more times (over the course of several days.) The whole thing is then placed into a large “burnout” oven, which allows the shell to become hardened, while also melting out the wax. Now comes the time to pour molten bronze into these newly formed shells. Once the bronze is poured and cooled, the time comes to chip away the shell. It is then sandblasted to remove any remnants of the shell. The very last step involves applying wax or lacquer to the surface of the sculpture, which protects the finish.
*This is simplified version of the incredibly lengthy process that it takes to make a bronze sculpture.