By Annette Hinkle
Ever since they founded the Sag Harbor Fine Arts Center last year, artist and educator James Daga Albinson and executive director Cindy Neuendorf have sought to offer students a sculpting component in addition to the drawing and painting instruction already in place.
But finding just the right sculptor to join the center has been a challenge up to this point at least.
Then Johanna Schwaiger entered the picture.
Schwaiger, a native of Austria, just graduated from the Florence Academy of Art in Italy after four studying there four years. This week, she officially begins teaching sculpture at the arts center — an academy focused on giving students of all ages a solid foundation in classical methods they can then use to build and shape their own visions moving forward.
“Coming here, having this art center and people who believe the same thing, it’s craft opening the world of art and showing it to young people,” says Schwaiger. “At that age, I was longing for that. If someone had guided me at bit I would’ve been so happy.”
Like many formerly frustrated artists, it took Schwaiger a very long time to discover the Florence Academy where she received the classical training she had been seeking in figurative sculpting. She only found the academy at the age of 26, after years of training in art schools where she didn’t obtain the skills she felt she needed.
“I always wanted to sculpt and tried to do figurative work, but no one was guiding me because teachers said to make it more interesting. ‘Don’t make a copy of nature, make it yours,’” she recalls them saying. “But I was 16 or 17 years old — I didn’t know what mine was.”
Although at art school in Europe she carved both marble and wood, Schwaiger notes the human figure never came up in the instruction.
“Every school in Europe teaches more contemporary art,” she says. “Because the old art exists there and is present, they really push contemporary work even stronger than they do here. The classical idea of sculpturing is gone.”
So after art school and with no one guiding her in her figurative work Schwaiger decided to try her creative hand by studying industrial design.
“I couldn’t see fighting against windmills,” she says. “So I tried to study design to create industrial products for a function. But what I always loved was creating something beautiful that connects with people — not in the sense of selling something lucrative, but like craftsmanship in the old days.”
So the search continued and Schwaiger was soon delving into art history in Salzburg, hoping to teach herself the classical techniques no one else seemed to capable of providing. She also started getting figurative commissions for sculpture in public places — primarily saints, memorials and angels for cemeteries.
But still, she was frustrated.
“I had to pretend I knew what I was talking about. I made it work, but I didn’t have the confidence of a craftsman,” she notes. “I was working on a life-size figure for a graveyard, and a person from the street came in and said they were impressed. I was talking about my difficulty with proportion, and he said ‘I know someone who just graduated from the Florence Academy.’”
So Schwaiger checked out the academy on line and thought it might be what she needed.
“I was 26 by then and I thought it was a dream,” she adds. “But I went to Florence and looked at the school I thought I should just quit everything and go.”
That’s exactly what Schwaiger did and it has turned out to be a defining moment in her life. What the academy and Robert Bodem, the school’s director of sculpture, offered was a simple — but efficient — sculpting technique with several distinct rules to follow.
“I was so happy about it. They didn’t claim to teach you how to be an artist at all. They say this something that may not even be teachable,” she says. “They trained you every day and you developed this visual approach and way of seeing.”
“Nowadays in the art world, there’s this big misunderstanding that beauty is left out of art,” adds Schwaiger. “People at the Florence Academy know the beauty grows within while you master your craft and you fall in love with the human figure itself.”
“I didn’t know in the beginning of the journey what to expect,” continues Schwaiger. “What I learned was truthfulness — you have to be truthful and push the borders. You can’t overestimate or underestimate yourself. You need to be truthful all the time.”
Schwaiger compares the process to Falun Gong, a form of meditation she practices which emphasizes truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
“People talk about what inspiration means, I think it happens when you get rid of the ego,” says. “When learning any craft — music, sculpture, painting — you keep refining techniques and making errors. Then you really get rid of ego and that makes you an artist.”
And she’s just the sort of artist Neuendorf sees as ideal for the Sag Harbor Art Center. Two years ago, Schwaiger met Neuendorf while visiting her friend Ben Fenske, another Florence Academy graduate, who shows frequently at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor. Schwaiger returned last winter to teach a portraiture class for the art center and was happy to find the young artists she taught appreciated what she had to offer.
“We had wanted to introduce sculpture for a long time and when I met Johanna, there was just a spirit about her that totally synergized with what we’re creating here,” explains Neuendorf. “It’s very hard to find an artist as good and educated as Johanna who is able to teach and willing to share what she was taught.”
“The whole thing worked,” adds Neuendorf. “What we’re creating here is very specific. The current art model has to change and with bringing the beauty back comes the understanding of technique so you can then be the vessel for your own creative pursuit.”
“Then you find your own way as artist and that’s what’s so interesting,” adds Neuendorf.
As an instructor, Schwaiger will start her students by having them sculpt simple shapes to gain an understanding of the process. The method focuses on observation — growing the sculptural form slowly using specific techniques to train the eye. And while sculpting may seem like an advanced art form, Schwaiger notes it’s actually good if students come to it without a lot of training.
“A human figure is a complex form, you need to understand structure and anatomy,” she says. “But for a beginner it’s better to not know much. You have to have a very naïve approach to what you see. This is why the technique is so great – you see through the eye of a child and use mirrors to trick your mind from what you think you know versus what you see.”
Neuendorf explains the art center’s holistic approach means students will be encouraged to try sculpting alongside the other mediums offered for a full rounded experience.
“It’s the same structure and technique as drawing and painting,” explains Neuendorf. “It’s just a different medium. We’re recommending students to do both, drawing was a necessary part of Johanna’s training and it’s the same for our program. It’s a true enhancement to what we’re doing.”
In addition to the three sculpturing classes Schwaiger teaches beginning this week, she will also offer a Thursday afternoon class for ages 6 to 10 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. focusing on various artistic techniques and mediums, including painting in nature, drawing and sculpting. Schwaiger is also a working artist and is creating a new series of figurative sculptures in the studio of women in various stages in life. The work will become the basis for her inaugural exhibit at the center this August.
The Sag Harbor Fine Arts Center is located at 23 Bridge Street (at Rose Street), Sag Harbor. For details about classes, call 603-5514.