Turning life into art

Turning life into art

Carol Schwartz of Englewood uses ordinary materials to make extraordinary things

We’re all the products of everything that has happened to us throughout our lives; we’re unique circumstances and episodes mixed with our own specific talents and lenses.

It’s true for all of us, but it’s perhaps most visible in artists.

Take, for example, Carol Schwartz of Englewood.

Ms. Schwartz is a sculptor; she’s also an architect, a Jewish woman, wife, and mother; she’s a mindful dresser, she’s dyslexic, and she’s from deep Brooklyn.

As a one-person show of her work is about to open at the Monmouth Museum in Central Jersey (see box), this seems to be a good time to check in with her and listen to her story.

Carol Fein grew up in a “completely nonreligious family in Gravesend,” she said, although she “didn’t know that I lived there until I was much older,” when city neighborhoods started getting more and more specific names. (Looking at you, Noho and Dumbo…) In fact, she’d always thought that she lived in Midwood, “but I was a block away from it.” That was a stroke of luck, she continued; “I went to Lincoln instead of Midwood” — those are both public high schools — “and it was a very arts-oriented school. I was in the art club; I was very much encouraged by teachers.

“Of course, I wasn’t great in other subjects,” she added.

That’s because she had dyslexia, a condition neither named nor really recognized as she was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s.

Carol Schwartz stands on a rooftop with an unfinished rhino. (All photos courtesy Carol Schwartz)

But that was fine, she said. “I was raised in a family with an older brother and a younger brother.” Her younger brother was almost a decade younger, so he grew up in Florida, in what was almost a different family, but as for her older brother, “you know how you get labeled in families? My older brother was the smart one.”

That brother, Dr. Melvyn Fein, who died in 2019, earned a doctorate in sociology and taught at Kennesaw State University in Georgia; he also was, among many other colorful things, a columnist for the Cherokee Tribune and the Cherokee Ledger-News. “He wrote at least 12 books,” his sister said; her childhood memories include him doing a lot of sitting in the living room, reading. “He was the smart one, and I was the creative one. The athletic one. The artistic one.”

Her brother was more fearful, she said, but “I was in a way my father’s child. He could teach me to ride a bike, or to swim. He was a self-taught electrical engineer, and I would go with him when he was repairing televisions.”

Carol loved to create art and to act, but her dyslexia made her frightened about her ability to read and memorize a script, so she focused on visual arts. After high school, she went to the Pratt Institute to study art and design; then her husband, Howard Schwartz, a now-retired psychologist and criminologist, convinced her to go to NYU for a graduate degree.

Then she got a job in an architectural firm. She worked for Edward Barnes, designing dormitories for the State University of New York system. He was “a brilliant architect,” she said, and she learned a lot, but “I didn’t like it. You just sit at a table and draft. You draft bathrooms and you draft staircases. You draft walls. It’s tedious and it was disappointing.

The couple moved from New York to San Francisco; when she was there, she worked for Earnest Born, who designed two stations and the 1970s signage for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

When Carol and Howard came back east — first to the city, but very soon afterward to Bogota and then to Englewood, where they have lived ever since — she went to the Art Students League in Manhattan. “I studied painting and drawing,” she said. “After the second year, I got a scholarship there. But then I got pregnant, and I could barely go to class.” It was the smell of art that made her sick; the intense sensitivity to odor that often comes with pregnancy made the school unbearable.

After her daughters were born, Ms. Schwartz dabbled in art; she taught little kids and senior citizens in Teaneck. “Basically, I was a stay-at-home mom for six years — and then my mother convinced me to go back to work. She told me that it was important for women to work. And she was right.”

These Warrior Women are made of carpenter’s wood.

Soon, Ms. Schwartz got a job at Quest Diagnostics. “I am not licensed as an architect,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I was afraid to take the test, because of my dyslexia. There are certain fears that you never get over.” But she was able to work with licensed architects; at Quest, she oversaw many. She worked there for 17 years, becoming the director of facilities planning. “Quest has buildings throughout the country that range in size from very large facilities, where most of the testing is done, to the small ones where you get your blood drawn. It’s very complex and interesting work.”

And, she added, “I have always felt that I am good at what I do.”

Once she left Quest — the company kept getting bought out and renamed, and its staff was turned over, and Ms. Schwartz did very well there until eventually she didn’t — she went back to the Art Students League and stayed there for five years.

“When I was there, I was pretty much sculpting in clay,” Ms. Schwartz said. The league offers “a classic art education. They pride themselves on that.” Among the strictures of that kind of orientation is a ban on power tools. “You are not allowed any,” she said. “You have to do everything by hand.”

Eventually, Ms. Schwartz moved from clay to wood. Why? “Because my younger daughter had a friend whose father was sculpting in wood,” she said. “I remember going to her house, and being very intrigued by what he was doing, and I thought that I should try it.

“And I loved it.”

One of the many things she loved about it was how you go from something small to something much bigger. You start with a macquette, a small clay model, and then you use wood to make a much larger version of what you’d first created in the macquette.

When she first started carving, she would take a piece of wood and cut into it. But that was frustrating. “It kept getting smaller and smaller,” she said. “But then I had a wonderful instructor, Seiji Saito, who is a terrific guy, and he said, ‘You don’t have to just carve. You can add.’

Who’s a good boy?

“He said, ‘Why don’t you get more wood, and attach the pieces together?’ and that is how I  got started.

“He would always say to me, ‘You can do it. You can do it!’ And as soon as he told me how to do it, that was it. It was like eureka. It was just so much me.

“From then on, I used clay as my macquette, almost never as my final piece. Sometimes I just used them in combination, because I like using mixed materials. I am not afraid to explore.

“But the problem was that in order to attach one piece to another, you have to sand the surface, because it has to be very smooth. I use glue and a ratchet strap, and then I reinforce it with dowels. But I was at the Art Students League, downstairs in the wood department, using a sander, that was making a lot of noise and a lot of dust. And the director was getting a lot of complaints.” Remember that power tools were verboten, and the sander was not a manual tool.

“So the director said, ‘Carol, you are going to have to leave. You can’t do this here anymore.’

“And then he also asked if I wanted to share his studio.”

That was Ira Goldberg, who was no longer using his Jersey City studio very often. That was where Ms. Schwartz established herself.

But as often happens, a new solution presents new problems. Ms. Schwartz was working in a huge studio, in a huge (and no longer standing) building full of artists. And for the first time as an artist, she was entirely alone.

“Piggyback.” Carol Schwartz made both these sculptures, mainly of wood.

Ms. Schwartz does not work with expensive wood. “I use carpenter’s materials,” she said. “It could be birch, it could be pine, it could be ash. I get it from Home Depot.

“The first time, I went to Home Depot and saw these four-by-fours that were calling me. I threw them over my shoulder, I threw them into my car, and I brought them to the studio.

“My career in architecture taught me process,” she continued. “It gave me fundamentals of drawing. It gave me an understanding of scale, and of how I can draw something that is teeny-tiny and send it to people who will read the document and know that this particular thing is 10 feet long, three feet wide, and a quarter of an inch deep. I am now the person who is drawing the schematic and I also am the person building from the schematic.”

As she was growing as an artist, the family’s Jewish commitment also was growing. “My husband comes from a family of Zionists, and very committed Jews,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I became more and more interested in Judaism, and it was encouraged. We decided that we wanted our kids to have a solid Jewish education, so that we could give them everything they’d need to choose a life path for themselves. I didn’t have that, and I felt very deprived.”

So the Schwartz’s daughters, Susanna and Rachel, who now are in their late 40s, went first to the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County, which was in Englewood at the time, and then to the Frisch Academy in Paramus. “Those schools seemed just right for us,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Over the years, we became much more involved. And our children both got extraordinary educations.”

The family now belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, “and both my girls are Orthodox,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Susanna lives in Riverdale, Rachel lives in Brooklyn, and they both have children.””

Now, as she is about to open an exhibit that’s called “The Architecture of Clothing,” Ms. Schwartz sees how all of her interests have come together.

Looking back at her life, “at my interests, and what I’m doing now, I see it’s all about how you’re presenting yourself,” she said. “The language of clothing is how you make a first impression that stays with people forever.

A tallit, made of paper.

“Think about how much clothing is mentioned in the Bible. Think about all the chapters about priestly garments. Basically, what those garments do  is lend dignity to the priests. The Bible recognizes the importance of clothing and also about how it can be used to hide.

“Look at the story of Tamar. She hid herself as a prostitute. It’s about how she was dressed. And look at Joseph and his coat. Clothing in the Bible has so much history and intention and meaning.

“You don’t know, as an  artist, what stays with you. Where your influences come from. They are buried inside you, and they open up, like a blossoming flower, and you go with it, and then you reflect on where it came from.

“All my life, I’ve been interested in clothing,” she continued. “I used to sit at my window when I was growing up, if I was home sick,  I’d watch the girls on the street go to school. They would be in their gorgeous dresses, and I’d be like, ‘one day I’ll be in a gorgeous dress like that.’

“I loved the movies, Doris Day, all the clothing that she wore. Loretta Young, and the dress that she wore when she twirled in that gorgeous finery. And Audrey Hepburn. You can’t deny the things that register with you.

“The girls on the street would wear really big skirts, with crinolines. It was very sculptural, and that is what fascinated me. And at the Academy Awards, I would watch — not now, when it’s just skin, but then — I didn’t care about who won, but about what they wore. It was high fashion.”

Much of that clothing can’t be worn, not really, but “it’s not really clothing,” Ms. Schwartz said. “It’s art.

“It’s a thread that’s been throughout my life,” she added, unable to stay away from a material metaphor. “It’s always been a thread.” In fact, she added, not realizing that she was doing it again, “it really hangs together.”

A dress made of paper. These objects will be in Ms. Schwartz’s Monmouth Museum show.

She thought back to what she saw in Brooklyn in the 1950s. “The girls had their saddle shoes, and there was a style when they wore their sweaters backward, buttoned in the back.” And the colors were rich.

Visually, it was very West Side Story, she agreed.

And clothing has remained part of her art. “Even my warrior women have little dresses,” she said.

Then she talked about how she developed her art.

After high school, where she had gotten emotional support from her teachers and her family, she got into Pratt. But how was she to pay for it? “My father always supported me, but I still was a girl,” she said. “He only wanted to pay for college if I went for home economics. I said to him, ‘That’s not happening,’ and then I asked him to disown me, so I could go to the bank and take out a loan.’”

He did, and she did. The disowning was on paper only — she continued to live at home until she got married – “but that’s how I got through my first year,” she said. “After that, I got scholarships.

“At Pratt, I got a design education. It was all problem-solving. Which I loved.” How do you design a hospital? A ship? A department store? An apartment building? “It could be anything.”

The show that is about to open in Monmouth is not wood; it’s the result, instead, of problem-solving.

This cardboard and rolled-paper jacket is called “Making the Cut.”

“The work in the show is a real departure for me,” Ms. Schwartz said. “They are connected to my interest in fashion, and they were done during covid.

“I had a studio in Union City during the pandemic, and I was going there just about every day, but I wasn’t going into Home Depot or any other store. On my way to the studio, I would see collections of cardboard outside houses. Everyone was homebound and buying things. And I was like, ‘Hmmm. What can I do with this?”

She had been asked to teach a children’s class that summer — it never happened, because covid happened instead — and  she’d been thinking about what to do. “I didn’t want  the school to have to pay for anything. It’s struggling. So I thought that I can use cardboard and paper, and I started to experiment. I thought that children could do it.

“It turns out that it’s not so easy, I learned later,” she added. “But I had it in mind as a possible material to use. My imagination is always working. I don’t know how it works, but it’s a gift for me. Everyone has a gift, and this one is mine.

The “Ceremonial Robe” is another cardboard-and-paper creation.

“And I like to break the boundaries, at least when it comes to art.”

That was the genesis of her new show, stylized clothing made of cardboard and rolled paper.

And there’s another thing she learned that Ms. Schwartz says is deeply important to her as an artist. It’s the freedom to discard what isn’t working for you.

“In 2006, I was making a sculpture of a woman” — women are at the heart of her art, Ms. Schwartz said — “and I’d been working on it for a year. And when I went into the studio, I looked at it, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s wrong. The proportions are all wrong.’ And I literally took a power saw and cut right through it. And that was the most liberating thing I had ever done.

“The act of seeing something become not precious to you because it is not good enough — I recognized that this was not good enough, and I was honest enough to tell myself that — so I was brave enough to pick up the saw.

“With artists, there is a tendency to think that your work is so precious that you don’t want to harm it. But after I did that, I have never been afraid to alter anything. It was really good.”

Carol and Howard Schwartz smile on a trip to Rome.

Who: Carol Schwartz

What: Has a solo show, “The Architecture of Clothing”

When: From July 17 to August 14

Where: At the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft

For more information: Go to monmouthmuseum.org or call (732) 747-2266

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