Relief Work

A profile of Helen Glazer by Geoffrey Himes, Spring 2004

For most of December and January, Helen Glazer’s work of art "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral" was part of a group exhibition at Angelfall Studios in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. The title is more a riddle than an explanation, and that’s appropriate because Glazer’s pieces inspire more questions than answers.

Before you can even tackle the riddle of the title, you confront a more basic question: Has the Owings Mills artist created a painting or a sculpture? On the one hand, "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral" hangs flat against the wall and is painted in lustrous yellows and scabrous reds. On the other hand, the piece rises off the flat surface in ridges, valleys and sinuous slopes.

An artists’ cooperative called Sculptors Inc. sponsors the show, but Glazer has spent most of her career as a painter. You can call the piece a relief, but it is clear that the lines and colors are as important as the shapes.

And what is it – animal, vegetable or mineral? Narrow at the bottom, it branches upward into two long cylinders that resemble the necks of shorebirds or the thin legs of ponies, but its creamy yellows climax in tufts of hair painted green and red. From between these two branches rises a yellow shaft, bulging like a tropical vine or a naked woman and opening into an orchidlike blossom, golden at the edges and scarlet deep inside. But the blossom also seems to be a volcanic crater, for roughened red and green ridges taper away from the rim like lava flows.

"When I finished the piece," the 48-year-old Glazer recalls, "Part of it looked like a bone; part of it looked like a stem; part of it looked like a rock. So I called it ‘Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.’" That seemed to sum up how it suggested many things but was defined by none of them. "That’s what I’m going for in my art," she said.

In the basement of her suburban ranch house near the junction of Walnut Avenue and Garrison Forest Road in Owings Mills are dozens of similar reliefs. They squirm and squiggle in bright colors on her walls like the flora and fauna of some forgotten "Star Trek" episode. The shapes swell and taper like the biomorphic sculptures of Jean Arp; the colors blush and ripple with the sensuality of Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstracted flowers.

"I haven’t always worked in reliefs," Glazer explains. "I spent 20 years as a painter. But I was never satisfied with the notion of a painting as a window on the world. I was always trying to change the canvas into a circle or a hexagon, or I was cutting out part of the surface to reveal a second image below. I was always more interested in imagery that comes from the world of the imagination rather than from observed models or objects.

"When I started working with clay, I found it wasn't that far removed from working with paint. I could manipulate it by adding things in or taking things out; I could smooth it out or roughen it up. It was more familiar than than carving a block of marble or wood, where you can never put back what you take away. With clay, I could try a shape and if I didn’t like it, I could start over. I loved the clay, and I liked figuring out what all the tools could do. I enjoyed it so much that I wondered why I hadn’t done it before."

Glazer says all this with the fervor of a convert. She sits in her basement studio -- at their feet lies a splattered drop cloth; behind her are leaning canvases from her old career and a stack of plastic molds from her new. On a large flat board, an oval lump of Plasticine, a gray nondrying clay, has been half-shaped into her next relief. Some sections have been pushed up into mountain ridges next to V-cut valleys; the edges have been carved away to leave an undulating shoreline.

The hybrid zone

"I like to keep the imagery open-ended," she explains. "As soon as it becomes too recognizable, where someone might say, ‘Oh, that’s a flower,’ I pull back. I prefer that the pieces suggest so many things that they lead different people to imagine different things. I like forms that are in the hybrid zone."

When Glazer is finally happy with the clay, she will spray an oily release agent on the surface and brush on a white liquid rubber over that. When the rubber has dried a quarter-inch thick, the artist pulls it away from the clay. Onto this mold’s surface she then brushes Forton, a polymer-modified gypsum reinforced by fiberglass strands. It’s so strong that it doesn’t have to be very thick, and when it dries, out pops a sturdy plaster duplicate of the Plasticine original. Sometimes Glazer will cast several plaster reliefs that she can paint different colors and tilt at different angles to create striking variations on the same theme.

"By coming off the wall," she explains, "these forms seem to be gesturing, as if they were characters. They have a sense of movement. I’ve been reading a lot about chaos theory recently, about the way seemingly random phenomena in nature have an underlying organizing principle that expresses itself slightly differently each time. That’s why I call my latest piece ‘Surfacing,’ because the waves go over it again and again in a way that seems both random and organized."

Glazer had to travel a long, twisting artistic journey before she arrived a her current style. She grew up in Westchester County outside New York City. Her dad was a dentist who sculpted on weekends; her mom was a local board of education member who collected lithographs.

Her parents took young Helen and her only sibling, George, to museums in Manhattan and encouraged them to draw. Helen majored in art at Yale, and after he junior year, attended the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine.

"It was a total immersion in art for two months in the summer," she remembers. "Unlike Yale, whose art department was so formalist they dismissed the relevance of content, Skowhegan was open to all different ways of making art. The older generation was still arguing, ‘Is photography art?’ while my generation said, ‘Of course it is.’ The older abstract painters in New York had this patronizing attitude toward figurative painters, that they were compromising the purity of painting. But my generation said, ‘So what? Who cares?’

"It was at Skowhegan that I realized I really had this in me, that I really wanted to go for it. I decided to go to an art school after Yale, and when I visited the Maryland Institute, it felt more like Skowhegan than Yale. When I walked through the graduate studios, I could see the students felt free to explore content, to explore styles different from their teachers’, to use humor or whimsy or femininity. It was the place for me."

When Glazer graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1978, she like many painters, felt pressure to move to New York. Manhattan is the undisputed center of the art world. But Glazer resisted. "All my friends in New York were working full time and sharing tiny apartments with roommates," she remembers. "They barely had time or space to paint. by contrast, I was only working 15-20 hours a week in Baltimore, and I had my own large apartment, my own car and no debts. I got a studio at School 33; I was part of traveling exhibit sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council. I thought, ‘This wouldn’t be happening if I were in New York.’"

In 1978, she fell in love with Joel Marcus, a local guitarist and songwriter. That only reinforced her resolve to stay in Maryland. In 1982, she married Marcus, who now has a psychotherapy practice in Cross Keys. In 1994, the couple moved from Baltimore to Owings Mills, where they have raised two sons -- Jonathan, 15, and Daniel, 12. From 1986 to 1998, Glazer was the exhibition director for the art gallery at Goucher College. Since 1998, she’s worked from home as Webmaster and marketing director for her kid brother’s antiques shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Source of inspiration

Through it all, she continued to paint and exhibit. By 1992, however, she was looking for a new direction. The answer came from an unexpected source. Her brother, George, who specialized in maps and prints, sent her photographs of several celestial charts from the Renaissance era with the figures of the constellations painted over the stars.

"I was fascinated that you have all these stars that aren’t really organized -- they’re just there -- and yet people feel compelled to arrange them in a system for navigation or myth or whatever. And it’s not easy to organize them, as you know if you’ve ever tried to find constellations in the sky. But people keep trying.

"I started reading books about the constellations in different cultures, and each culture calls them something different. The Big Dipper (in the constellation of Ursa Major) for example, is called the Great Bear in Europe, but other cultures call it the Camel, the Moose, the Skunk, the Leaping Gazelle, the Hen and Her Chicks, and so on."

It was at this point she got an announcement in the mail from the Baltimore Mural Program seeking proposals for a mural site in Baltimore’s Sowebo neighborhood. Glazer had been making small paintings on the different versions of the constellations, so she submitted a proposal to put a different version of the Big Dipper on each of the three walls at the site. To her surprise, she got the commission.

"I was up there climbing around on scaffolding three stories up," she recalls. "I looked down at the traffic whizzing by on Lombard Street and said, ‘What the hell am I doing up here?’ I had never done anything like that before. Whenever you’re asked to do something new, there’s a bit of uncertainty, and that’s an exciting place to be. I always learn something from doing commissions. Having restraints forces you to do things you never would have thought of yourself.

"People would pull over in their cars and give me comments. It made me realize people in the neighborhood were going to see it every day, so I felt a responsibility to make something really good for them. I realized I was reaching people who would never set foot inside a gallery."

After six weeks of work, Glazer finished the mural in July 1993.

What a relief

Four years later, she got another mural commission, for the renovation and expansion of Garrett Heights Elementary in Baltimore’s Lauraville. But his project came with an unusual requirement. Because the school had a program for visually impaired students. the mural had to appeal to all students, including those with limited sight.

"It was clear to me that the mural had to be a relief," Glazer explains. "I made a sample relief of a lion with stars in its mane and brought it to one class of blind students to see if they would get it.

"They got the teeth right away and knew it was fierce animal. They guessed it was a wolf or a dog, but the teacher said, ‘No, remember the mane.' Then they figured out it was lion and counted all the stars."

So Glazer made a mural with 11 panels, each representing a different culture’s interpretation of the Big Dipper. Each panel was relief that rose off the surface in ways that begged to be touched. It felt like a breakthrough, but she wasn't sure how to apply it to the smaller works she made in her basement.

"A lot of artists have the problem of too much choice," she says. "When you can do anything, what do you do? It’s not like the old days when the academy said, ‘This is painting; these are acceptable techniques and these are acceptable subjects.’ Now any material is OK -- any subject matter…any approach. After I made the two murals, I faced the same problem: What do I want to do? Do I want to make paintings, pastels, murals, reliefs or something else?"

So she went back to basics. She started to draw in a sketchbook, quickly putting down every idea that popped into her head. Eventually she produced a series of imaginary botanical forms in colored pencil. She liked them so much that she decided to turn them into the kind of reliefs she’s still doing today, 3 1/2 years later.

"What made me think I was onto something was I couldn't think of anyone else doing something quite like this," she says. "Of course, there are similarities. A lot of people have pointed out the resemblance to O’Keeffe, and the Jean Arp sculptures use similar shapes…I’ve always like Elizabeth Murray’s paintings on warped canvases.

"But these reliefs are something that’s really my own, and that’s what every artist wants."

Originally published in Tradition, a magazine supplement to the Owings Mills Times, Spring 2004, pp. 22-25. © Geoffrey Himes 2004.

For more information about Helen's work, see her resumé.

All images, text and web design © Helen Glazer 1993-2013. All rights reserved.
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