She puts nature to work in her art
by Roger Green, The Times-Picayune
New Orleans artist Ersy uses such non-traditional materials as snake skins, tree bark and
wasps’ nests in her relief sculptures. “I never pass up an opportunity,” she says, “to pick up something in nature that I can make into something else.”
Ersy is the professional name used by one of the most original and, in her way, most indigenous artists working in New Orleans today. Her creations are relief sculptures molded from human faces, torsos and other anatomical parts. To fabricate these relief pieces, which generally reproduce body parts in truncated form, Ersy often employs non-traditional materials, including organic substances native to the Pelican State.
“My primary aim,” says the artist about her light and airy-looking work, “is to infuse new life into my subjects and organic materials, which I see myself as recycling for artistic purposes.”
Stylistically, her sculptures range from realistic examples, which bring to mind statuary from ancient Greece, to near-abstract compositions, which reveal their human subject matter only with careful scrutiny.
Ersy received her formal art training at the California Institute of the Arts, at Cooper Union in New York City and as an apprentice to sculptor Enrique Alferez in Morelia, Mexico. However, despite this widespread study, she developed her art from her earliest experiences in New Orleans.
“As a I child I lived in the Upper Pontalba Building,” she says, recalling that she looked out from her parents’ balcony over crowds of masked revelers at Carnival time, and that at the Cabildo — next door — she soon discovered the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. New Orleans’ cemeteries were also a source of fascination, contributing to what she calls her “childhood obsession with morbidity and death.” She collected the bones and teeth of local and domestic animals, and was often given exotic gifts like monkey skulls. Surprisingly, her parents “didn’t seem to be shocked by any of this,” she recalls.
ERSY CREATED HER earliest masks for a production of Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” that was staged at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1974. The head masks she manufactured for the play, and for some time afterward, incorporated latex, leather and organic materials, including lizard skin, feathers and bones. According to the artist, the masks were “gutsy and moving.” However, they were also “difficult to- live with and sell.”
As a result of the difficulties she experienced trying to market the head masks, she determined to change her means of expression, and developed her current, highly complex molding technique. The process, which involves many steps, begins when she makes a plaster cast of a live subject, whose face or selected body part first is covered with a thick coat of vaseline.
If a sitter’s face is to be molded, paper drinking straws are inserted into his nostrils, making breathing possible. A layer of plaster, then a lining of gauze, then another layer of plaster are applied to the subject’s face, till the coating is approximately half an inch thick. The sitter must then remain motionless for about 30 minutes, while the plaster is allowed to dry. After that time, simply by smiling, the subject can unloose the hardened mask.
Having thus obtained a mold, Ersy brushes its interior surface with liquid wax, building to a thickness of an eighth of an inch. The layer of wax, when it hardens and is removed, becomes the “stepping-off point” for the completed work. Step 1 is to manipulate the wax casting with a heated tool (“The finished sculptures are very seldom portraits,” the artist admits).
STEP 2 IS TO drape the manipulated wax with water-soaked sheets of paper, leather or organic material; when dry, the evocatively creased and wrinkled sheets are often hardened with shellac or rabbit-skin glue. Finally, the wax layer is pulled away, and the relief sculpture is complete.
Ersy first began to use organic materials in her sculptures during a 21/2 – year stay at Weyanoke, a friend’s plantation house in West Feliciana Parish. One day, by accident, the artist killed a chicken snake by rolling over it with a wheelbarrow. Flaying the dead reptile at once, she treated the skin with lime and salt, and also spread cornmeal on its interior surface, in order to dry out remaining scraps of meat before they became infested with maggots.
Ersy had learned how to preserve the snake’s skin as a young teen-ager, when she assisted ichthyologist Dr. Royal Suttkus in the biology department at Tulane. The chicken snake’s skin today describes a face in a sculpture appropriately titled “In the Grass.”
To create another face-sculpture, called “Hornets,” Ersy used the paper-like membrane encasing a wasps’ nest, which she discovered in the veranda rafters at Weyanoke. The pliable membrane, which the insects create by regurgitating leaves, mud and grasses, proved to be appropriate for Ersy’s artistic purposes.
THE ARTIST HAS ALSO used bark, which she dissolves with acid, then strains through a screen, and admits that she would love to make a mask using alligator skin. “I never pass up an opportunity,” she says about her work, “to pick up something in nature that I can make into something else.”
However, “Hornets” was attacked and partially devoured by moths, a fact that revealed the impracticality of working with certain organic materials. “Moths, mice and heat quite often destroy my work,” sighs the artist, who nevertheless plans to continue using molds as “stepping stones,” and to maintain a skin-like and floating quality in her art.
Says Ersy, “I like the fact that my art appears delicate, but proves to be resistant and tough to the touch. I would really like to develop this contradiction in future projects.”
For the moment, Ersy regrets that facilities for casting bronze are not readily accessible to artists in New Orleans. “I want to continue with what I’m doing,” she says, “but in a more permanent material — something that will be around after I’m gone.”