No Fear, All Heart, Pure Soul: The Passion of Sculptor Margot Gotoff

June 25th, 2014  |  Published in *, June 2014, Profiles

by Elizabeth Teslow

I’m staring at a Maker’s Mark glass.  It’s quirky.  It has a red plastic base that gives it the appearance of dipped and dripped wax.  “Oh, Liz, Go ahead, take it.  It’s a great souvenir.”  It did make sense to take it home.   It wasn’t exactly in perfect condition, but that was its charm; and in my eyes, it was perfect—it represented my memorable night with sculptor Margot Gotoff and her husband, Harry Gotoff, at “Brass Meets Bronze 2,” a sculpture exhibition in Covington, KY, Mother’s Day weekend.  Harry definitely agreed and proceeded to swipe and wipe the glass on his jacket and stick it in his pocket.

That’s sculptor Margot Gotoff.  She has this inexplicable tendency to make one forget she is an artist of worldly acclaim because she is so absolutely grounded.  And I have no problem gushing about her, either.  I was completely floored by her art and her persona.  Margot’s charisma is infectious.  You want to be her friend, and she delivers.  She completely captivated me, not only as an unbelievably talented sculptor, but as an unbelievably true blue friend.

I was overwhelmed by the vast amount of material written about Margot; I didn’t want to repeat or copy, or, in other words, compete with any of these writers.  So, I decided to focus on the other aspects of our interview, without losing the scope of the assignment, that made our day together both exceptional and unforgettable.  I made a terrific friend that day, and I would like to share the details.

My introduction to sculptor Margot Gotoff was going to be at her Northside studio on Sunday, March 30, 2014.  An invitation—and an incredible opportunity—to join the Cincinnati MacDowell Society for “An Afternoon in the Studio with Sculptor Margot Gotoff,” from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm.  And, I couldn’t go—I COULD NOT GO.  Margot still teases me about it.

Margot and Chloe

So, along came the Aeqai Fundraiser, and, come heck or high water, I would deal with my Metro bussing issues and meet sculptor Margot Gotoff, even if it meant I would have to grab a cab, take a bus, and walk to Marta Hewitt’s Gallery—all of which I did.  I would simply arrive at the Fundraiser fashionably late.

It turned out I arrived unfashionably early.  At least I had 3 or more copies of my admission ticket in one hand, and a gift bag of “warm” Ghiradelli chocolates in the other.  I knew absolutely no one, so I thought I would soak in the art at Marta’s Gallery and wait for sculptor Margot Gotoff to appear.

Full of carrots and warm chocolate, I finally sat down.  People seemed to arrive all at once, and I scanned the crowd of unfamiliar faces.  After I came back from powdering my nose, the gallery was packed (I noticed many carrots and warm Ghirardellis were disappearing at an alarming rate).  My eyes then gravitated toward a crowd of people standing around one particular table, and I immediately knew why.  I made my way to the table, snatched the rest of the warm Ghirardellis, and stood there, rather sheepishly and impatiently.

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Finally, after a lady left her chair, I made a break for it, and squatted down next to Margot.  Yes, I actually squatted, and tapped her gently on the shoulder, and she turned around.  She beamed, stood up, and hugged me.  She was just as exotic—those dark almond eyes and that long dark hair—as in her photos; more exotic because there she was in living color.  Since the place was so loud—much merriment in the form of talking, laughing, and music—I pointed to the name tag on my chest.  “Elizabeth!  Oh, do sit down, please!  Here, next to me.  No, put your bag in that chair, and for goodness sake, eat!  Everybody, this is Liz Teslow!  She is a new writer for Aeqai!  Have you met her?”

I felt so safe, so completely safe. Margot made sure that I would continue to be safe, too; I never left her side.  She introduced me to every one of her friends and admirers—the whole art scene, it seemed; a “Who’s Who” of Cincinnati.  We had to yell in one another’s ears over the din.I must add that Margot Gotoff has the best New York accent one could possibly imagine; it compliments her calm, warm, and snazzy manner.

Margot had to leave early to teach her class, and after we exchanged many hugs, I took the plate of chocolates on our table, threw the rest of them in the gift bag, and handed the bag to Margot and Harry.  I felt it was the least that I could do.

Margot and I would meet the next Thursday, April 24, 2014, at Biagio’s Bistro, in Clifton, to talk.  Because of my Metro issues, I made sure to find Biagio’s without any grief—I Googled both the map and the menu.   I wanted to check the prices, as Margot wanted to treat me.  I would purchase a glass of water and a salad.  I didn’t want Margot to pay for my lunch.  I had to re-schedule this meeting, too.

I called Margot on my cell and told her I actually found a connector to Clifton.  For some reason, my archaic 2007 Nokia, that half-flips, just didn’t want to work with me that day, so I couldn’t hear a thing Margot said, and vice-versa.  This was not exactly how I planned my “professional” interview.

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Sitting next to La Poste, I believe Margot said:  “Okay, Liz, you will see me with Chloe; I’ll be in the front of my house.”   I met Margot, dressed in red jacket, with Chloe, a long-haired redhead Doxie puppy.  Margot beamed that smile, and she greeted me with those open arms, and asked me, if I didn’t mind, if we could take little Chloe for a walk around the block.  So, Chloe, Margot and me walked around the neighborhood, just like good old friends.

We came back to Margot’s house.  Jazz was playing in the background.  “Let me just turn this down, Liz.”  Margot then turned on the small lights that accompanied each one of her glass sculptures, completely illuminating the room with teals, pinks, and blues.

“So you are actually standing in my living room—I have a lot of my work here.  Later on, we’ll go to the studio.  And, as you can see my glass sculptures are normally figurative, but imaginative as well.  They all start out in clay; so I work on a clay piece for maybe a month, and then I make a rubber mold, or a silicone mold, off of the clay.  So, I paint off this rubber, and then I do a mother mold.  So, envision two halves of a walnut shell—holding the rubber mold inside.  When everything is set, I take off the mother mold, peel off the rubber, and place it into the mother mold.  I then clean it and start painting in wax, just as I would for bronze.  I paint in many layers of wax, and when it hardens, I peel off of it; and that’s why you want something pliable.  I start touching up the wax with the tools that are heated by a propane torch, and I might, it depends, touch up an eye, a mouth, or maybe a part of drapery.  This is also the time when, if I desire, I could add something to a torso—maybe a part of a face—or I could add something to the thigh; different things can be added in the wax.

“I attach the wax to a heavy plywood board, make a fence of plywood around that piece, and use chicken wire—to sort of make a drape around it—never touching it.  Then I mix up plaster and silica flour, and pour bucket after bucket very gently into this mold.  When it’s three inches higher than the highest point—which of course I measure before and I mark off—I can stop pouring in this mold material.  When it sets, overnight, I unscrew the plywood—which acts like a fence around the all of the edges.  Because some of these can weigh 300 pounds or more, I receive some help when I upright the mold.  So now I can see the wax, and then I melt it with a propane torch.  This can take quite a while, because I can’t just pull out the wax; I could risk, for example, pulling out part of an eye.

“When it’s completely melted out, I have this concave area where my piece once was—it’s now the ‘impression’ of the piece in the mold.  I also receive help with pulleys and so forth, getting it over to the oven, where it dries for about a week.  Once it’s dry, I test it by leaving the door of the oven propped a tiny bit open by a little thin brick.  I take a thick piece of glass and bring it up to that open part of the oven; and if it gets moisture on it, then there’s still moisture in the mold.  Once I put that piece of glass up to the opening and there’s no moisture, I know it’s time to turn off the oven, and I gently open the door.  Now I’m ready to put in glass.

“My glass comes in ten pound slabs or three and ½ pound slabs that, with goggles and a mask, I break up with a mallet into different sized pieces.  Then, slowly, I put in piece by piece.  If I want it to be one color, it isn’t as difficult.  If I want drapery, however, or part of it to be one color, and part of it to be another color, I have to build mountains of different colored glass.

“I often have the problem of saying, ‘okay, I’ll just put in one more piece,’ and then these mountains careen down,” Margot laughed, “ and I have to start all over.  But, I have a program—depending on the thickness of the mold—of how long it takes to reach the glass’ temperature.  It depends on which glass (one glass is from West Virginia and it’s melting point is 1475 degrees; and another glass, Seattle, has a melting point of about 1560 degrees).  The Seattle glass usually melts in about three hours, and the West Virginia glass takes about eight hours.

“Once I am sure—and it’s always a guestimate—I put on a mask, gloves, and wet bandanas over my hair and I look into the oven.  I prop the oven with a wet two by two, open it up, look in, and this heat comes out at me.  When I think it is adequately melted, I close the door, and put in a program which slowly cools down a few degrees every day.  The West Virginia glass takes about a week to cool down; the Seattle glass takes almost a month.  So, it’s cooling down almost a month.  Which means, every night, I go to bed thinking about it, not knowing how it will turn out.  When the oven reaches 80 degrees, I can open up the oven. Now, I can knock the mold material away.  If the piece is fifty pounds or above, I certainly get help lifting it out of the oven.  It’s when I lift it out of the oven, and put it on my workbench, that I see I have to use diamond tools.  There might be a little thin of glass where the mold might have split just a tad, so I want to break that off.

“Then, slowly, with diamond tools, I polish it.  It isn’t that I want everything shiny, it isn’t that at all.  I might want to get rid of some of this extra glass, and the backs can be ground with a special grinder with water that runs through it.  There are different degrees of diamond thicknesses on the disks, and the front is done by hand.  Finally, I take the piece to my base maker, and I will tell him the kind of base I want.  These days the bases are stainless steel, and they tend to be very simple.

“My father was a sculptor.  And I have some pieces here that I can show you. We grew up with art.  I remember, as a kid, I was about nine years old or so, telling someone that I was going to have a birthday party at my home.  Then, something came to me; I took a big look around, and I sort of gasped at the amount of nude sculptures—I mean, they were everywhere!—so, I actually went around the house, frantically, and put scarves over each one of them!”  Margot giggled.

“Here!  I have to show you dad’s pieces over here.”  We walked over to shelf in the far right corner of the living room.  “Okay, that’s Hazel, an African-American woman he did we he was probably twenty.  We always heard about Hazel as we grew up.  He won a prize for her from a museum in Buffalo, New York, where he grew up.  My dad was born in America, as was my mom, and both dad’s parents and mom’s parents were from Russia.  Dad thought he would continue to study sculpture, but, unfortunately, this was during the Depression.

“Dad’s great passion was sculpture; but his life’s work was devoted to saving Jewish refugees during and after the War—this was when we lived in many foreign countries.

“When we lived in Budapest, my dad had been invited to the studio of [Zsigmond Kisfauludi] Strobl (1884-1975), a well-known Hungarian sculptor that created huge monuments.  Dad’s style, therefore, became very classical—over here is a classical head that my father did of Strobl, and here is a head of me.  That standing nude over there, that lovely woman, is wooden piece called ‘ad astra’—‘To the Stars.’

“He had a studio in Montmartre, and he also had a studio in Rio.  Every weekend we were taken to museums, whether we wanted to go or not!”  Margot started to laugh.  “And, I’m so thankful now, I can’t tell you.  As a kid, I didn’t realize that any of these sculptures or works would have an influence on me.  I drew, yes, and maybe I painted a little.  But, as you can see, his work is still here.  His work is still around us, till this day.

“This,” Margot continued, and began to laugh, “I always have to point out—it’s a watercolor of, very intense, of a prostitute, and it was over our dining room.  Now, how many teenage girls grow up with a painting of a prostitute?  And, see those tiny little bronzes over there?  See, up here, the mini-bronzes?  Well, one year we went to live in Italy, in Rome, with our children, and the owner of the apartment, for one reason or another, wanted to be assured that no artist was going to be living there.  And, of course, my husband Harry said, ‘no, no, I’m a Classical scholar.’  So, the landlord said ‘fine.’  Of course, whenever he the landlord would come to visit from Germany, I’d have to hide all my sculptures.  So, the kitchen table was my studio, and I worked very small—everything was directly done in wax, and then cast in bronze.

“We had many older friends when we were living in Rome.  One of these friends came over one day—somehow she noticed that I was having trouble sculpting legs—so, she said to me:  ‘well, here, here!’ and she pulled her skirt up right in front of our kitchen window, so I could see her legs!”  Margot cracked up laughing.  “I was so amazed, because, you know, there were Italian women all around, sort of peering through their windows at her.  But, she helped me with the legs by posing.  It was so sweet.”

I asked Margot if she made the silkscreens on the walls near the windows.  “Yes, I did!  I had to choose a minor in school, so, yes, it was silk-screening.  I don’t know exactly when I wanted to be an artist.  I suppose it was my senior year at Michigan, where I was getting my degree in French Literature, and I decided to take several art history courses.   One of these courses was ‘Sculpture from the Renaissance to the Present,’ taught by a wonderful professor.  I remember something stirred inside me as I was listening to the professor and looking at the various slides—I was seeing, on the screen, works I had seen firsthand at the Louvre, and the other museums throughout Europe.  I began to have a change of heart.

“After I graduated, I lived in Geneva (where my parents were living at the time).  I remember one day my mom said, ‘what are your plans for the fall?’  I said, ‘well, I’m going to grad school,’ and she said, ‘no, it actually stops here.’ I was shocked, because I figured, naturally, that I would continue with graduate school.  I retorted, ‘well, I’m going to New York.’  So, I went to New York, I got a job, and I started taking sculpture at night.  This was when I really realized what I really wanted to do.  But, I had already applied to Columbia with a concentration in social work—both of my parents were social workers, so this was a natural decision.   On the application, however, there was one question that brought me to tears:  ‘Why do you want to do this more than anything else in the world?’  These little tears were forming and I realized I didn’t want to do social work more than anything else in the world.  After my dad saw my face, he said to me, ‘what do you want to do?’  And I said, ‘I really want to study sculpture,’ and he said—these were his words—‘I will stake you to it’— that he would support me.  I didn’t ask him and I didn’t want him to.  I thought that this was so kind, because no one had stuck him to it.  I thought, ‘well, where can I go that will be less expensive for him?’ and I thought, ‘well, they’re in Geneva, I’ll try to go to Beaux-Arts.  I then decided to go back to Geneva, and I was accepted into Beaux-Arts, and I had 2 wonderful years there.

“When I first went to Beaux-Arts, they put me into the room with students who were becoming art teachers; they were not allowed in the room with the live model.  We had to copy, in clay, from a Greek or Roman plaster.  When the professor thought you were good enough to move on, he allowed you in the room with the model.  I think it was after a month and a half that I was accepted; I was so thrilled.  As for the others who were going to be teachers, they stayed in the room with the plaster copies.

“Every day, at Beaux-Arts, you had four hours of clay with the model, two hours in the afternoon with stone, and two hours drawing.  Classes started at eight in the morning, and at ten, the clay professor would come by with a paring knife, and if he didn’t like what he saw, he would unceremoniously cut it off.  He didn’t cut anything of mine, so, I was very grateful. He was very severe, and you sort of trembled a little as he walked by.  Now, in my teaching, I would never come up to a student and cut something off.  Beaux-Arts was very strict, but I consider myself so lucky that I went there, because it was a wonderful foundation to begin my sculpting.

“After Beaux-Arts, I went back to Michigan and received a Masters in Sculpture.  I remember wondering  if I had any ability at all.  And I always say to my students that art is always going to be a journey, and I’m still on that journey, that path, learning more every day.  For example, when I work in clay, I don’t start with a drawing because it becomes too tight of a process.  I will absolutely take a picture.  I do draw, and that may give me some ideas, but when I work in the clay, something can just hit me, something can just grab me.  I remember when I was first at Beaux-Arts, and riding the bus every day to have lunch with my mom, and I remember looking at all these people—the different noses and lips as the bus rode by.  It was so exciting, because at Beaux-Arts I was trying to do them in clay—and, suddenly, I could analyze and study from these human beings!  So, I think, by now, having looked at so many people as a sculptor, it’s just a part of me, it’s just in me.

“As I’m teaching, I do use models at least once a week for my classes.  I remember several years ago a woman came into my class and she said, ‘oh, my goodness, you’ve used my nose!’  And, I did.  I used her nose without realizing it.  I like having an idea in my mind, but then as I work with it, in the clay, it can change.”

Margot jumped suddenly.  “Liz, oh my goodness!  We have to eat!  Stop the tape, sweetie.  Let’s get ready to go to Biagio’s.  And, no, I am paying.  I will not argue.”  She giggled.  “I promise not to argue.  I’m going to give Chloe another little walk, and then I’ll come back to freshen up, how’s that’s sound?  Then, we’ll go to my studio, okay?”

Margot and I sat by the window in Biagio’s Bistro, a quaint little Italian restaurant that reminded me of New York’s Little Italy.  I ordered a penne pasta salad, and single espresso (I had skipped my coffee that day).  Margot smirked.  “Liz, that’s it?”

This was when Margot and I really got to know one another.  In between mouthfuls of salad and small swigs of espresso—Margot became my new friend.  We weren’t in interview mode anymore.

The waiter asked if we wanted any dessert.  Somehow the answers of “yes” and “no” managed to come out of Margot and me at the same time.  “Liz, you and I will share the banana cream pie.  You have to try it.  It is the best I have ever tasted.  Ever.  And this is my treat, so don’t even think about it.”

“Liz, the rest is yours, sweetie.  Waiter, can we have a carry-out box?  Thanks.  Liz, take the bread, too.  I don’t want any more.  Seriously, they’ll just throw it away.  Here, honey, here’s a napkin.”

After we left Biagio’s, Margot asked me if it was okay if she brought Chloe to her Northside studio.  We all sat in the front of Margot’s car:   Chloe in my arms with Margot at the wheel.  I was finally going to see Margot’s studio, after so many missed opportunities.  We entered the studio and Margot began to tour me around the room.

“When we first moved here, I decided to go back and get another Master’s degree—I didn’t want to teach high school and junior high school anymore.  I ended up teaching at the Art Academy for about 8 or 9 years; I taught credit and non-credit classes.  One of my students went to see a show of my bronze sculpture at a nearby gallery and asked me during class, ‘did you ever think of glass?’  I said, ‘well, I think glass is beautiful, but I never thought of it for me,’ and he said, ‘well, I’d like you to come to brunch.   I just purchased a piece of your work, so why don’t you and your husband come along?’  Well, his name happened to be David Wolf, and his wife happened to be Nancy Wolf, and they have one of the premier glass collections in America.  It was David Wolf who opened my eyes to the possibility of using glass; and because he has a strong personality, he didn’t give up with that first invitation.  He took me to the studio of someone who had a glass facility.  I did take a very small course, and there were many steps I had to learn.  I really had to learn a lot on my own through trial and error—because a lot of people blow or manipulate hot glass, but I was casting in glass.  I even went to West Virginia for the day and talked with their specialist and so forth.  But, yes, I do owe it to David Wolf.  One of my pieces is at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where a good portion of their collection is found.

“I started sculpting with glass in 1995.  I think the first show I had of glass might have been in 1997.  It’s amazing to think it’s that long.  And all of my pieces used to be cobalt blue.   One day a gallery in Florida saw my work, and the gallery director loved it, and then she said, ‘but why is it blue?’   I said, ‘well, I love that color.  And we are right here by the ocean,’ and she said, ‘yes, but the people by the ocean see enough blue.  Did you ever think of clear?  Of transparent glass?’  And, really, I never had.  Now I use clear glass with color added, as you can see, like some of these torsos—there’s a stripe with clear, a stripe with teal, and then a stripe with cobalt.  And so, as we walk around, you will see some of the glass that I use displayed here.  I showed these items to The MacDowell Society:  this is the glass that comes from West Virginia in 10 pound slabs; this is the clear glass that comes from Seattle—when it reaches the correct temperature, it becomes burnt scarlet, or it could become ruby pink.  All of that glass has to be added piece by piece inside your mold, upside down.  So, say you’re building a mount of stripe of teal that may be 2 ½ feet long.  You have to build your mount piece by piece of clear glass and of cobalt glass.  So, everything is up above the mold opening, by maybe, about 8 inches.

“From beginning to end, the entire process—there is no day—rather, months.   The clay could take a month, making the mold; the mother mold can take a week, and working on the wax can take, 3, 4, or 5 days, depending what you’re doing.  Making the mold takes part of a day, and melting out takes, maybe 6 hours or more.  So, a piece from beginning to end can take 5, maybe 6 months; it’s hard to say.  It takes a long time, because working with the diamond tools is not quick at all—you use water, and it’s very slow.  When something is very smooth like this—on the edge of this half-torso—it means that it would have been ground with disks with coarse commercial diamonds, as well as very fine commercial diamonds.

“These are the little diamond bits for the drummels, and these are the diamond pads of different degrees of diamonds; these are the disks.  This is the coarsest one, and this is about $35.  They become less and less coarse with wear.

“This is one of the molds.  You put in the wax to fit into this mold, then add chicken wire, then, fill the entire thing with a plaster and silica flour mixture.  At the end, it is all unscrewed, and then you have her, totally covered, in that plaster and silica flour—it’s like a plaster mold—and then you have to melt her out from the back.  This is a silicone mold, it’s very pliable, and here she is, see, she comes out of this mold; you are still going to have to re-tool the eye a little—but, it’s a wonderful mold.   I did the torso in clay, and then in wax, I added the head.  It’s called, My Muse—that’s the kind of thing you can do with wax.  You wear a mask for organic vapors, and you use a little water, and you use the propane—and as you keep melting, you do it on top of, for example, wet newspaper, so it doesn’t burn.  You then use a grinding tool, with water running through it.

“See, in black, this clear torso, and that cement over there?   Athena.  Those are 2 pieces my dad made and then cast them in bronze; my sister has the bronze.  When my parents lived in New York, the sculpture was stolen.  One day, my mother walked by a nearby boutique, and she saw it, wrapped in a scarf, in the window.  She went in immediately and she said, ‘that’s my husband’s piece!’ and the store owner said, ‘okay, lady, we found it in the garbage.  It’s yours, take it!’

“I also inherited dad’s tools and his smock, and I still regret that I didn’t take his table, which I should of, you know; by take it, I mean, have it sent.  I haven’t worn the smock yet.  I think I probably will wear it, now that we’re talking about it!

“This is an award I got, which was so sweet, from the state of Ohio, The Pegasus Award for 2009, which is lovely.”  Margot was almost breathless.  “Oh, my God, Maya Lin got it; Rosemary Clooney got it,” she laughed, “a lot of very well-known people.  The representative called me and she said, ‘we want to give you an award,’ and I said, ‘I think you have the wrong person.’”  Margot laughed.  “She said, ‘no, no!’  It was very sweet, it really was.

“I believe everyone should be humble, and I have to say when I’ve had students, some of whom weren’t so humble, I’ve felt like saying, ‘hey people, we’re all learning here.’  Some years ago, an adult in my class asked me, ‘how long does it take to make an eye in clay?’ you know, ‘how long does it take?’ and I knew she wanted an answer like, ‘oh, a ½ an hour or an hour…’ and I said to her, ‘well, I can’t tell you, um, I’ve been a sculptor for over 30 years, and I’m still learning.’  Because, it’s not like, ‘okay, eye…check! Okay, nose…check!  I’ve done it!’  No, it’s a journey—you’re always looking; you’re always trying to understand— you’re always looking at other artists’ work.  I mean, for me, it doesn’t have to be tightly realistic at all; I love abstract art as well.  But I want to feel that what a person produces something—something that has traveled through the mind of a particular artist—somehow there should be an artist’s thoughts, an artist’s sensibilities, coming through that piece.

“You know, the fun thing is that the whole time the piece is in wax, you start thinking, ‘okay, how am I going to translate it into glass?  What I am I going to do?  Am I going to change the wax?’ you know?

“Somebody found my website a few years ago, and he asked what my favorite piece was, and at the time it was this piece called it Points of View—I think that’s what I called it.  I had done a torso in clay, and then I had done a head, separately, in wax. They’re deep into her torso, so I didn’t know how it would cast, but it did.  It turned out that he wanted it, and I ended up agreeing to sell it to him.  I’m a bit sorry in a way, because some pieces really enter your heart more than others.  They just do.”

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