Seeing the two sheep suspended from the ceiling of the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district stopped me in my tracks.
Especially the larger creature, which glowed with a fierce beauty I could see from the street.
So I went in and encountered some of the others shaped by Beth Cavener Stichter.
The American artist works in sugar crystals and more traditional materials like clay to mold her disconcerting animals. Toward the back of the gallery, there’s a life-size clay deer wearing a lace shroud and shot full of arrows.
Alice would not like these angry hares. But many humans do. Some of the larger works sell for $150,000.
I met with Cavener, 39, at the gallery before she returned home to a remote part of eastern Washington.
Tarmy: Where is your studio?
Stichter: Close to Montana and Idaho. It’s right on the bitter edge of the middle of nowhere. I live in a tiny, dying ghost town called Garfield. Less than 300 people live there, and they’re the kind of people who move there because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. I pretty much stay on our property line and work in isolation.
Tarmy: Do you have assistants?
Stichter: Most of the time I work by myself, but in the summer I do get interns. My husband and I built a little guest house on our property, because there’s nowhere else that they can stay. I get people from all over the place, but they quickly realize, “Wow, this is a strange place,” and then, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?”
Tarmy: Do you always sculpt animals?
Stichter: If you look at my pieces, they’re all based on human anatomy rather than animal anatomy. I’m trying to be sneaky about the sense of empathy that I try to draw out of people.
Tarmy: Why do animals elicit more empathy than humans?
Stichter: I think it comes from all of those children’s books, where they try to teach you moral lessons through animals because to children that’s more palatable.
I think that same thing is true for adults, even though we believe we’ve outgrown that kind of tendency. You still see people who are more considerate and human to their pets than they are to the person sitting next to them in the subway.
Tarmy: How did you start to use sugar crystals in your sculpture?
Stichter: With every body of my work, there’s always one or two pieces that are a weird scientific exploration for me. I spent almost a year just testing -- I did over 50 or 60 tank tests.
Each tank experiment required three or four hundred pounds of sugar, boiled with water until it became a saturated solution. Those crystals are so strong and sharp, if you pick the sculpture up with your bare hands it will slice your flesh.
Tarmy: You drove all of your sculptures out here yourself.
Stichter: There’s really no other way that I feel comfortable delivering the work. Also, I can’t afford to ship my work across the country.
Tarmy: But some of your pieces sell in the six figures.
Stichter: Well they do, finally, but it’s been a slow climb up. When I first signed up with the Claire Oliver gallery four years ago, it was right when the economy was tanking. This show represents a significant bump.
It’s not something that I think about much. I invested well over $70,000 in materials and supplies for this show. My hope was to break even and we’ve done that.
Tarmy: Have you seen your work in collector’s homes?
Stichter: Oh yes. These pieces are really meant to go into small residential environments. They’re meant to be uncomfortably looming in that space. I want it to be a presence in the room that you can’t ignore. When I’ve seen these pieces in people’s homes, it really feels like there’s another person in the room -- you’re kind of twitchy around them.
“Beth Cavener Stichter: Come Undone” continues through Oct. 20 at Claire Oliver Gallery, 513 W. 26th St. Information: +1-212-929-5949; http://www.claireoliver.com.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on movies and Amanda Gordon on New York Scene.
To contact the writer on the story: James Tarmy in New York: Jtarmy@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.