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In wood, UNM student sculptor finds her perfect medium

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Elana Schwartz powers up when she creates her wood sculptures. Schwartz uses a band saw, angle grinder and orbital sander among other power tools.

She wears a mask to keep the sawdust out of her nose and mouth.

A ski suit is standard clothing in her long, cold hours of artistic creation: Schwartz’s studio is an unheated one-car garage.

If you go
WHAT: “Revelations” – Elana Schwartz’s BFA Thesis Exhibition
WHEN: Now through Friday, Jan. 27
WHERE: John Sommers Gallery, second floor, across from the Art and Art History Department, Fine Arts Building, UNM campus. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

She transferred to the University of New Mexico in the fall of 2009 from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. The next semester the 23-year-old junior art major took her first sculpture class.

“I think one of the first assignments was wood carving. We were to make a totem or something that represented a story. That’s when I learned how to use various pneumatic grinding tools. I really got into it,” Schwartz said.

Her first wood sculpture was of a man on a whale perched on a pedestal of waves.

That assignment heightened her excitement: “I realized how much fun it was to do productive sculpture, starting with a block of wood. I realized how much I liked (the end result). To me wood is reminiscent of traditional or sacred sculpture. I respect wood the most because it’s the hardest medium to do.”

Schwartz works in linden or bass. Bass is the cheapest carving wood and because it’s soft, the initial step of roughing out the sculpture is easy but detailing is more difficult.

Her first step in creation is sketching ideas for figures on paper. She thinks of her unpainted figurative sculptures as “freeing the work from the wood. I’m surprised when it’s done. Wow. That was in my mind?”

In UNM’s John Sommers Gallery this week, Schwartz is presenting several pieces as elements of a single installation titled “Revelations.” The installation is a study in the duality of good and evil, she explained.

One figure has a goat head on a woman’s body. In another, a woman’s head and torso are emerging from a deer. In the other two pieces, a young girl’s brain is exposed and a little boy’s intestines are revealed.

“I think internal organs are beautiful. It’s all about the aesthetics,” she said.

Schwartz came to sculpture after working in other media. An Albuquerque High School graduate, she enrolled at Occidental College, where she majored in psychology, “but I spent all of my time in my dorm room painting.”

Back in Albuquerque during a year off, she became interested in puppetry and stop-motion animation.

“I saw the movie ‘The Puppet Master’ and I had this fantasy about making characters come to life. I made mixed-media puppets, through trial and error,” Schwartz said.

She returned to Los Angeles, where she planned to study in the toy department at the Otis College of Art and Design.

“I had foundation classes but I realized that my puppets were more sculpture, not toys. Then I got into interior lighting,” Schwartz said.

“At Otis I learned how to be a perfectionist, which has helped me a lot. I learned to respect art more; you have to work hard to be an artist.”

At UNM, she said that recently retired sculpture professor Steve Barry has given her unvarnished criticism, which she said she needs.

“I like getting criticized. How else would you fix it if someone doesn’t tell you about your art?” Schwartz asked rhetorically.

“She’s pretty exceptional,” Barry said of Schwartz. “In my woodcarving class she was obsessed. She has a great degree of natural talent and also intensity and focus.”

He said he’s had hundreds of students who are very good but Schwartz is extraordinary when it came to carving wood because she was deeply engaged in sculpting.

Schwartz said artist friend Mark Chavez also has mentored her.

“He motivates me and gives me such a feeling of optimism about my work. And he critiques it,” she said.

Chavez said what impresses him about Schwartz is that she takes on incredibly challenging projects with wood.

He has worked with wood, bronze, jewelry, ceramics and watercolor. Currently, he is composing and singing songs.

“A lot of people stay away from wood just because it’s such a challenging medium,” Chavez said. “Once you get engaged in the experience, not even the cold weather can stop you.”