Ivan Schwartz tells stories about American history through his sculptures, which can be found in museums and public spaces across the country, depicting historical figures from Thomas Jefferson and the other signatories of Abraham’s Declaration of Independence. Lincoln to anti-slavery crusaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Saturday, December 4, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, will unveil Schwartz’s latest work – a seven-foot-tall bronze sculpture of President John F. Kennedy (Hon. ’55), which the center commissioned in honor of its 50th anniversary celebration.
Schwartz (CFA’73) and his team began their year-long work on the sculpture at StudioEIS, Brooklyn, which Schwartz directs with his brother, Elliot, and sister, Debra, and they completed the statue at the foundry. UAP in upstate New York. The siblings pride themselves on the in-depth research behind their work – their team includes historians as well as sculptors, costume experts, foundry partners and other specialists. âWhile most people seek out the mythical singular talent, when my brother and I started the studio, we knew that was not what it was about, that it would be a collaborative effort, requiring the talents of many people, âSchwartz said.
The StudioEIS team has completed work commissioned by a number of institutions including the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond, Virginia, and the National World War. II Museum in New Orleans.
Schwartz, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens and Long Island, has been a visual storyteller for half a century. He is a recipient of a College of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award, a former member of the Dean’s Advisory Board of the CFA, a past president of Innovators in America and the author of a visual memoir, Scratch the surface (7 days of publication, 2021).
Bostonia spoke with him about the new statue, his creative process and how CFA ignited his passion for sculpture.
With Ivan Schwartz
Bostonia: How old is JFK in your statue and how did you think about how to represent him?
Ivan Schwartz: He is in his early forties. We looked at just about every photograph of JFK that we could find and we watched a movie of him. The first part of our job was to suggest an attitude for the sculpture. What we didn’t want was to create a place of mourning.
Kennedy was telegenic. The camera loved him. He was extremely attractive, convincing, vigorous. We wanted to represent that vigor – make him walk, smile, very naturalistic, the guy we remembered. He has his left hand on his jacket. He was playing with the buttons of his coat; it was one of the idiosyncratic things he did.
Bostonia: And Kennedy’s hair, how did you deal with it?
Ivan Schwartz: Kennedy had amazing hair, which was very thick, very well groomed. You can only approach it. Although we can make almost facsimile copies of clothes, we use clay to sculpt hair and the hair doesn’t really want to be recreated in clay.
Bostonia: You were a boy when Kennedy was elected president in 1960. What did he mean to you growing up?
Ivan Schwartz: I was born a few years after the end of World War II. My father was a WWII veteran, so seeing this young man who was also a veteran, he was kind of a new image in terms of the promise of a new America. I think people were hopeful. It was a time when they believed their politicians would keep their promises.
Bostonia: How did you get interested in art when you grew up in New York?
Ivan Schwartz: My parents would drag us to museums. My mother was a sort of Sunday painter. She had an easel in the corner of the kitchen and she made copies of French Impressionist paintings. I was 11 or 12 when I started taking the subway to an art school at the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I painted and drew. I was extremely lucky in high school – I went to John F. Kennedy High School on Long Island – to have an art teacher who thought art was the most important thing in the world. He admitted that some of us were seriously interested in art. He said, “You’ve got a gift, you’ve got to do it.”
Bostonia: How did the BU and the CFA shape you as an artist?
Ivan Schwartz: I remember taking my first sculpture class and thought, that’s it. I had two very good sculpture teachers, Elbert Weinberg and Harold Tovish. When I finished my last year at the BU in sculpture, Tovish said, âYou have the talent, you have to go to New York and become the next great figurative sculptor. It’s very exhilarating when your teacher says that. I had an excellent training in classical studies in terms of academic art. After I graduated, I spent a year in New York working as a laborer, earning money so I could go to Italy. I spent a year in Italy working in quarries and foundries. It was my graduate school.
Bostonia: How did you get into the work of historical sculptures?
Ivan Schwartz: Suddenly there was a new language in visual storytelling that museums were looking for. The figurative elements have become important. What happened was that after America’s bicentennial in 1976, there was a great emerging interest in cultural institutions across America. There has been a boom in museum building for 20, 25 years. As a result, it was essential for every city of any size to have a museum. I arrived at the right time, when these scenographers were looking for a more serious approach to three-dimensional figures.
Bostonia: What are you working on now?
Ivan Schwartz: A great project for civil rights: the Clara Luper memorial in Oklahoma City. Clara Luper was an educator who lived in Oklahoma City. In 1958, she took black theater students to New York; they had never been to a lunch counter because of segregation. In New York, they were able to go to Woolworth’s, eat a hamburger, and drink Coke. Upon their return to Oklahoma City, she hosted a sit-in with 14 kids – ranging in age from 10 to 14 or 15 – to desegregate the counter at the Katz pharmacy. We are in the process of reconstructing this 1958 lunch counter and the sit-in.
When it comes to history, these reconstructions are all part of the story to be told. I made Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman’s sculptures for the Maryland State Archives only two years ago. It was a great honor. The inauguration took place at night during a joint session of the Maryland State Legislature. I was asked to speak. The descendants of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were there. These sculptures would never have arrived 10 years ago.
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