Five questions for sculptor/ceramist Sandy Kaplan

Sandy Kaplan’s “Ada With Blue Umbrella” (2020)Kaplan explained: “This sculpture is based on a painting by contemporary artist, Alex Katz, whose wife, Ada, was his favorite subject. The bust sits on a separate wooden base that was built specifically for this piece and has a hole to hold the umbrella in place. The umbrella is a separate piece that gets attached to the base.”

By Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

Just at an age when many people flirt with retirement, Sandy Kaplan found herself smack dab in the middle of a burgeoning art career she couldn’t have imagined when she was younger and working in development at Barnes Jewish Hospital Foundation.

A divorced mother of two daughters and B’nai Amoona congregant, Kaplan signed up for a hand-building clay class at Craft Alliance in 1989 after her younger daughter left for college. In the three decades since, Kaplan, who is in her seventies, has created sculptures, vessel forms and hand-built platters in terra cotta, which she paints in a range of colored glazes. As she explains it:

“The frieze of figures on my sculptures, the sides of my vessels and in the center of my platters are women and men relating to each other, in conversation, or else dancing, while showing friendship, affection and love. It is an ancient practice to depict scenes from the lives of people and their gods on vessels, but in my work, the figures emerge into three-dimensional space, entering just a bit into our world.”

Kaplan’s expressive, colorful sculptures, many of which were inspired by her favorite actors, musicians and visual artists, have been shown and sold in numerous exhibitions in the St. Louis area and at SOFA Chicago, now known as Intersect Chicago, an art fair.

In fact, the first place she exhibited was at a 1993 show at Jewish Federation of St. Louis, in partnership with Craft Alliance, called “Creation: A Celebration of the Craft Artist,” where she sold her first piece to Dr. Gary Wasserman and Sheila Greenbaum, who became Federation president in 2007.

The Jewish Light caught up with Kaplan recently to talk about her art and to see what’s she been up to during the pandemic.

A lot of people take classes at Craft Alliance and enjoy them but do not go on to exhibit and sell their art for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. When did you realize you could make this a second career?

My art career has evolved over time. I’ve always been good creating with my hands. After learning to needlepoint, knit and sew when my kids were young, it was years later that I wanted to try working with clay, specifically hand building. I would get an idea of what I wanted to make and a vision of what it would look like when finished. For me, clay has been easy to work with and learning to master sculpting, glazing and firing is a process that can’t be rushed. I never keep track of the time I put into making each piece. I was fortunate to have Jim Ibur as my first instructor at Craft Alliance over 30 years ago. He encouraged me to learn how to sculpt faces since I was doing figurative work. In 2012, Buzz Spector, curator of “Tradition!” an exhibit at the Regional Arts Commission, selected a body of my work for this show. I am grateful that Buzz has mentored me over the years and encouraged me to develop the interiors of my vessels . . . It’s an intuitive feeling I get when I arrive at a point that I accomplished what I set out to do and am proud of my ceramic work — especially as a second career.

How do you decide on the subject matter for your pieces?

They come to me in different ways. For example, I got the idea for (my sculpture) “Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story,” after I read an article in The New York Times that explained how all over the world they were celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday. It talked about his music for “West Side Story.” I thought, oh my gosh, “West Side Story” is my very favorite musical and I have got to do this.

The ones I did of (Belgian surrealist artist) Rene Magritte’s work came about when I was in New York with my daughter for my birthday and we went to a Magritte exhibition at MoMA, [the Museum of Modern Art]. I bought the catalogue, and had it squirreled away in my house for a few years. Then one day I got it out and I thought, oh my God, these surrealist paintings — I’m going to bring them to life on a vessel. So I did a few pieces of Magritte’s work.

Just this summer, I went to see the sunflowers at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area and made of a woman just holding a sunflower. The last piece I made is of “Notorious RBG.” I am so proud of sculpting this amazing, truthful, strong, resilient woman who gave us all so much to be grateful for.

Do you have a favorite piece?

I did this Andy Warhol piece that was pretty amazing. I took some of his paintings, like his images of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy and Judy Garland and made big tiles on a vessel, almost like a box. Then I did a bust of Andy Warhol and some images of him also.

Honestly, I really like so many of them. It’s hard not to get attached after working on each for several months. They become like friends.

How has the pandemic affected your business? Are people buying art?

I have not sold anything during this time. It’s OK because it is what it is right now. The art world is hurting. It didn’t stop me from making some pieces. It’s almost like good therapy to be doing something constructive and creating during the pandemic. For me, that was a priority. Instead of worrying about if I was selling anything, I just decided I would continue to make things that were smaller and that I could handle and take to Craft Alliance. I had fun with a Lichtenstein piece I finished just prior to the pandemic for a gallery in Chicago that might want the Warhol piece, too. So hopefully that will be an opportunity to sell those pieces, which would be great.

What do you hope people take away from your art?

I think there is an emotional component. My work is about people and relationships and the feelings they convey through narrative sculpture. There is a lot of hardship, sadness and illness in the world, but if I can make someone’s day better or put a smile on their face with my art or bring them joy, well, then, that pleases me.

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