Joyce’s New York: A Conversation with Margot Lovejoy

From “Episodes of The City – New York as a Source Book, Wallworks and Artists Books of Joyce Cutler-Shaw” Exhibition Catalogue. Published by Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University, 2007

Margot Lovejoy: Memories of your roots in New York City have always been fascinating to me since our early years were so completely different: I grew up in a small Canadian town around the same time that you were experiencing the wonders of a metropolis full of museums, libraries, and history. Yet we both became artists. I’ve always been bowled over by the depth and ambition of your work-its quality and its search for metaphors for universal meaning. There’s a mystery there I want to explore with you. What was it like as an only child… a girl? Your mother as a single parent? Growing up in a metropolis like New York even during wartime. Such a contrast to my childhood-family life with brother and sister, mother and father-in a town with no library.

Joyce Cutler-Shaw: My mother, Lola, was by nature a free spirit. Without me I believe that she would have led an even more unconventional life than she-and we did. She was my anchor in the world, I was hers. She came from a highly paternalistic cultural era in which divorce was shocking and shameful for the family. She was also raised to be a worker. She became an apprentice milliner when she was a teenager. Although she told me she was born in Detroit (where I was), she was an illegal alien. If my father had been a citizen at the time, my mother would have been. As it turned out, my father, who said he was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (where there was a coincidentally timed fire at City Hall, where all the records were burned) was born in Russia. I learned this inadvertently years later. My mother left my father when I was about a year and a half, and when I was three decided she would move to New York.

She left me with my father and grandparents- not a good scene-to find a job and a place for us to live, then came for me. It was not the first time I felt abandoned. Lola worked in millinery at Lord & Taylor when hats were a fashion essential. She could make an amusing hat from a leaf, a bit of veil, a button, shards of ribbon, or even a length of string. She had imagination, wit, and a wonderful sense of style. She was always alert to what was new. We lived in furnished rooms of apartments of women who could take care of me while my mother was at work, generally six days a week. That was how they paid their rent. We moved and moved and moved, which always made me feel displaced. We had very little money, enough to pay bills, but we were always beautifully dressed, from bargain hunting and the rooftop sales for employees of Lord & Taylor where she found odd, often luxury, items at reduced prices.However, every Sunday was our day to go to museums and Central Park.My mother, who had very little formal education, was teaching us both. We started at the edge of the park where she would buy me a gardenia corsage from a street vendor for some very small change.

We went to the same spot where I fed the pigeons, convinced they were the same birds each week. Then to one or two museums, even three if we made a short stop to see a favorite painting at the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Natural History was on this list, as was the 42nd Street Library. Museums were free. We could never have afforded it at today’s prices. The grandeur of the library and museums-with their period rooms of fine furniture, paintings of family scenes, and Dutch interiors at the Met-represented a stability, a timelessness, missing from my traumatic domestic life. We would pass the Rockefeller Center Atlas to say “hello” and my mother would always say, “That’s me,” holding up the burdens of her challenging world of single parenthood. We would have hot chocolate and bacon rolls at Schrafts, until she made more money-then it was Rumplemeyer’s in the St. Moritz Hotel or the Russian Tea Room for lovely cakes. We would end our day at a fancy specialty grocery. Every week we could by a luxury food, but only up to seventy-five cents or a dollar. Then we could go home and share a small figano, a few kumquats, a persimmon, an imported peach, or a few cherries in winter. I always had small luxuries at bedtime, such as a plate of very thin, French-cut slices of carrot on one of the unmatched decorative fine china plates my mother’s sister, who was well off, had given her. The slices would cover the design so I would be surprised when it appeared.

Lola worked toward going into business for herself by managing stores, and which she did, with a small shop in the Bronx when I was thirteen. We had an apartment of our own for the first time at 271 East Kingsbridge Road, across from Poe Park and Poe Cottage. I would pretend that the poet’s house was my house. Poets would become prominent in my life at that time. I went to Elizabeth Barrett Browning Junior High School. We learned her poetry by heart, and that of other women poets such as Emily Dickinson.I was always expected to work with Lola and did, part time after school through junior high and high school. By the time I was in college at NYU she had her shop at 148 East 48th Street in Midtown and we lived in the building. It was an apartment house then- not the hotel it is today. My last year in college, I was managing her second shop at 165 East 48th Street. I always loved school, but had to share my life of learning, drawing, painting, and writing with working. At the time I thought I was missing a proper family life.

In retrospect, I did better. My mother and I shared friends. Many were independent, self-supporting women and her customers. One was the Executive Secretary for Elizabeth Arden. Her boyfriend was an art dealer who had lined her apartment halls with respectable Japanese prints that were erotica on the other side. He was a funny, tall, dashing Irishman, who, knowing my interest in poetry, had his friend, the poet Oliver St. John Gogarty, call me to tell me stories about his friend, James Joyce, an author I was reading. We knew businesswomen, young actresses, and high-priced call girls. And men who would bring in their wives and mistresses to buy them clothing, but not at the same time, of course.I was learning broader lessons as well, and without realizing it, the principles of sculpture and design: clothing women’s bodies to enhance them is a sculptural problem. Window display is the art of installation. I was discovering more than I realized about women and liberation before it was a social and political movement. And I owe that to Lola, my mother.

ML: Can you describe more about your love of research wherever you are-whether it’s reading, writing, or drawing? I’ve always noted your sketching at any event we’ve attended together. Is it that you are always seeking connections from experiences to art making?

JCS: I believe the impulse to trace my responses to whatever situation I am in came from living so much alone as a young child with an ineluctable need to communicate. I wanted so much to have a way to share whatever it was I was seeing, thinking, experiencing, feeling. I was in a continuous imaginary conversation with whomever I chose to conjure. Later, this “conversation” became connected to drawing and a continuous practice of graphic strategies for documentation, notation, and reference. It was also a way to teach myself to draw in different situations. What interests me are unexpected connections from the visual to the conceptual and the metaphorical. For example, at the visual level, I enjoy drawings like those of Claes Oldenberg from his little notebook of shape connections, when circles turn into everything from breasts to Mickey Mouse ears. Or on seeing a medieval psalter (without knowing its story), that has fourteen angels hovering in a semicircle around what may be a pilgrim or a saint. The obvious association is that of Hansel and Gretel in the forest, going to sleep in that potentially dangerous place while “fourteen angels watch do keep.” Then the question is what is the connection, and what is the significance of fourteen angels, and the number fourteen? I like work that reveals itself at many levels. I am certainly not against visual seduction, or the immediacy of a strong visual image, but, from my point of view, a work has to say more than that. My themes from the beginning have been of survival, of evolution, and transformation. I have been drawn to that which is universal in the human condition-to what, as a species, we have in common. Perhaps I’ve been trying to be in connection, from seeing myself as solitary, an outsider, with drawing as a primary language.

ML: I’m curious about your Alphabet of Bones. How much was its development related to your early memories of Washington Square, which was once the second site of New York’s Potter’s Field? I once did a project describing how, as the city grew, this burial ground was moved north nine times, from City Hall to its present location at Hart Island.

JCS: I rediscovered the history you mention and reference in your own art while researching for this exhibition, and am using it here in the gallery on “The Red Wall” drawings of Washington Square, with a border of bones as well as a drawing of the storied “Hanging Tree.” I am delighted that the digital printing for that wall is a collaboration with The Harlem Textile Works. But The Alphabet of Bones has a different source. When I was evolving my work for The Lady and The Bird early on, with the messenger pigeon (Columba livia) as its primary image, its symbol and metaphor, I wanted to understand the structure of the bird. I acquired a skeleton and sets of articulated leg and claw bones. Drawing the hollow leg bones of the bird I was struck by their relationship to Chinese characters. Chinese characters, I have learned, are precisely bone shaped, and have their origin in real bone. The idea for my own calligraphic alphabet seemed inevitable. When I was offered an exhibit of that emerging body of work I promised an Alphabet of Bones for a show I called Wingtrace/The Sign of its Track, which originated in San Diego and travelled to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University. The original alphabet had twelve characters. When I was invited to show the work at the Johnson Museum at Cornell, I realized that if I increased the number of characters to twenty-six I could have an English alphabetic equivalent. With digitization I could write texts in my own alphabet, which is what I did. To develop the characters precisely enough for the creation of a font I studied for a while with a Chinese calligrapher. The immediate beauty of a spontaneous brush and ink poem in cursive Chinese or Japanese is a consequence of mastery. My homage to that practice in my own work is in drawing in pen and ink on fine handmade paper, particularly in the anatomy lab in my role as Artist in-Residence at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

ML: I’ve noted that for some time you’ve studied aging and death in your drawings. I’m reminded of the comment by Eugene O’Neill you quote. Are you “a little bit in love with death”?

JCS: I grew up with a rather dark view of the world. It was not unjustified. In fact, for a long time, I never thought I would live beyond my thirties. I am grateful that time has proved me wrong. Even with the current ominous political and environmental situation, I have a less dour understanding of being temporal. Death is a basic condition of life, and as a present possibility, it is what gives it quickened meaning. What has helped to shape my world view was learning about evolution as a child, studying existential philosophy in college and learning firsthand, at a very early age, how the power of art-painting, sculpture, drawing, writing-speaks to us and for us across time. O’Neill speaks to the tragedy of our human limitations. I saw an inspired performance some years ago in New York of his Moon for the Misbegotten with Gabriel Byrne that so moved the audience that we left the theatre shaken and in tears. O’Neill brings us face to face with our human capacity for misunderstanding, self-denial, and defeat. I think of death as a friend. Perhaps if I were less compulsive and committed to work I might feel differently. I believe we are meant to find our gifts and realize them fully-to fulfill our potential as best we can, to test the limits of our ability. Given such an attitude, I can’t imagine the burden of immortal life.I had several powerful experiences with the death of those close to me. They were so different-from a most matter-of-fact acceptance, to a struggle with death as in mortal combat, to one of almost transcendent embrace. The latter was the example of my mother whose presence was with me for months after she died. It was my desire to understand the power of those experiences that led to the privilege of being named Artist-in-Residence at UCSD’s School of Medicine. As part of the anatomy program, I have come to understand that death is a process as much as life is. All the bodies for the medical school’s anatomy program are donated, and I have donated my own. It is a private amusement that I can see myself in dissection by a group of medical students. I hope I have at least one or two unusual internal parts to surprise them.

ML: We’ve talked of calligraphy as a form that touches writing, drawing, and painting. Can you comment more on this as it relates to you work? And how do you envisage using it as a “sound” alphabet in its next incarnation?

JCS: What museums gave me was a love for Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. I have calligraphy envy. What intrigues me is that because it is writing and drawing, and painting all at once, you can enjoy it without knowing the language. I am drawn to the more contemporary form of concrete poetry, in which meaning is tied to its visual representation. My desire to create English language writing to emulate that combination influenced the development of the Namepoems. These were conceived as graphic portraits: 2,000 first names from around the world that were the selected population of my 1974 Namewall-a retiling of the 265-foot-long entry passageway of the Los Angeles International Airport’s International Terminal #2. It was the first installation of an artwork by an individual artist at that public site. After two months, as a closing event for that work, Igave people their Nametile (an 8 ½ x 4 ¼ inch coated paper imprinted with a first name) in exchange for their signature. Some of the signature cards are in the exhibition, including one with Linda Benglis lipstick kiss mark. In researching graphology, I came to understand that a signature is a graphic form of self-portraiture. I began to look at the individual names of the Namewall, get a take on a personality, and invent a handwriting that felt appropriate to the name and character. A series of these Namepoems are in the current exhibit as one of my language images. I had a graphologist look at eight of the Namepoems-of four women and four men. She thought the repeated signature was some kind of a test, and from this limited sample gave me a thumbnail indication of their personalities. She did not detect that they were the work of one person. From her brief descriptions I developed The Eight, inventing their personalities, handwritings, and scenarios about which I wrote letters in “their” hand. The project also included an artists book of The Eight. The various sculptures of Survival and, before that, the proposed We the People sculpture were, in fact, concrete poems in ice. My work has involved words and language images from the outset, with an underlying impulse for narrative. My more recent works include original calligraphies, such as the Calligraphy of the Wild Birds of Central Park that is new for this exhibit. The New York Audubon Society was helpful in providing bird lists. For the exhibition this year at the Fisher Gallery at USC in Los Angeles of bone and bird works, I developed the Calligraphy of the Wild Birds of Los Angeles. For a current public art commission for a new addition for an historic Carnegie Library in San Jose, California, I have conceived the East Carnegie Calligraphy, from drawn images of sites in this diverse, established neighborhood. More and more I seem to be drawn to libraries, which, of course implies language-and the spoken word. The new Sound Alphabet of Bones is my attempt to make audible a language that is unspoken. There is a hollow bone sound for each of the twenty-six characters, derived from electronically adjusted sounds of the Japanese shakuhachi flute. This work in process has the sound alphabet digitized so the texts can be “played.”

ML: Your whole project is a life memory-a looking backward and its effects on your currentthinking-seeking (as always) the depth and iconography of experiences. Can youtell us how this journey is affecting you personally and how it connects to your identity?

JCS: I had not really looked back in this particular way, that is, examining the influenceof New York as, as I have called it, a source book for my subsequent work. It was theopportunity of this invitation to exhibit at NYU, which is my undergraduate alma mater,which suggested it. Even though I have lived many years in Southern California-andthink of it as this country’s frontier in terms of energy and creative potential-my identityis urban. That is, big-city urban, which means New York. However, New York was adifferent place in a different time for a young child with a single mother. The conditionsof my life meant having to share the work that supported us with my own life, whichincluded everything most important to me-school and learning, art classes at night orsummers when I could fit them in, seeing friends and dating. I wanted an art life, and italways meant juggling the domestic parts. I’m glad I was an insomniac. I am also glad Ino longer am-nor have to be.

ML: I remember the story you submitted to my TURNS website ( or four years ago. You described leaving New York as a major turning point in your life-more than marrying, having children, or other key moments. But what is your relationshipto New York now that you have reached such a different relationship to it?JCS: Given the childhood I had, continually uprooted, every move was traumatic. I wasuprooted from New York without warning and without being asked. San Diego at thattime was as unlikely a place as I could have imagined. I felt that I had been transferredto land’s end.At the time, I was studying art in studio situations. Charley Seide was a respectedteacher. In addition to his art school positions, he had a large loft in Brooklyn and twelvestudents, of which I was one. We had one formal class a week (in painting and drawing)all day Friday, with a model, critiques, demonstrations in the use and care of materials,and a key to the studio to use 24/7. At the same time I studied with a textile designer inher studio in the Village. She was a demanding teacher in terms of reading color, shaperelationships, precise measuring of line and design repeats with the eye (she wouldcheck our estimates with a ruler). Also, as the bold move of a novice, I had just gottenan agent for textile design.The move, then, was shattering. However, though it took years to adjust, it turnedout to be a rewarding transition, and a richly developmental one. What the move meant,being away from family, was a freedom and independence to shape our lives, domesticallyand individually. The University of California, San Diego started an unconventionaland highly experimental graduate program in the visual arts, and I was part of that newprogram. I was developing a professional art life. As soon as I received my MFA I establisheda new studio, began teaching, and had exhibits lined up-my first museum groupshow and first one-person show.The feminist art movement was emerging and I was part of the Woman’s Building inLos Angeles. A year later, in 1974, I realized my first public work, The Namewall, at LAX. And I started going to Europe. There was interest in my work because it was conceptuallybased. Now, of course, it is a very different art world, diverse and diffuse and muchmore commercial.

ML: Your relationship to libraries and research is a deep vein that connects to all yourwork. You’ve had many shows in libraries and have created public artworks that graceboth exteriors and interiors of libraries. Can you comment on how this relationshiprelates to some or your exhibitions and installations, including the current exhibition atBobst Library?

JCS: I had the good fortune to be invited by the NYU library dean, Carol Mandel. It seems that most of the best things that have happened in my art life were unexpected. For example, I initiated a nonprofit organization with friends in 1980 because I wanted to realize the United Nations project, Waters of the Nations/Messages from the World. It was an environmental project featuring a word poem of ice that spelled SURVIVAL, and is featured in the current show. However, an individual could not gain permission for the UN site; it had to be an organization. We formed Landmark Art Projects so that artists could be their own project directors under the umbrella of Landmark. After the UN piece, we created the Landmark Art Collaborative, which included environmental sculptors and landscape architects. We proposed works that received much attention, grant funding, and respect. However, after ten years of intense labor, drawings, test sites and public exhibits, forums and presentations, we could not realize one significant work. We struggled a lot and finally gave it up in 1990. What I did not know and expect at the time, though, was that the public attention and respect of the architectural community for Landmark would lead, two years later, for me personally, to a series of commissions in the public realm.The San Diego Mission Valley Library commission was by invitation and turned out to be very successful. The arts commission in San Diego submitted it for the Art in America annual page of public works published in 2003. At the suggestion of the architect, Richard Blackman, I even won a Design Detail award from the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects.For over ten years now I have been receiving commissions by invitation. It is unexpected good fortune. The exhibit, Library Quartet (2003), a retrospective in four libraries concurrently, happened because the directors of the libraries, Erika Torri of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, one of the few membership libraries in the US, Lynda Claassen, director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego, and Mark Elliot Lugo, the director of the art galleries of public libraries in San Diego, had all talked to me about exhibiting. I just put it together to show at the same time. It was their first such collaboration across the various institutions. I have always been at home in libraries. I have had good homecomings.

ML: And this exhibition in New York is something of a homecoming for you.

JCS: I have no idea what my life would have been like if I had stayed in New York. I am tied to the city in my imagination. It is the city as imaginary. However, I always felt like an outsider, that I did not quite belong. New York is a good place to feel like that. You can be solitary with company. Just being on the street is to be in communication. The phrase that I use in my work I realize now has been an expression of that feeling of displacement-the artist is a migratory worker, home is a portable loft. I felt about New York-which has a tangible energy that energizes me-that anything is possible, but with its fierce competitiveness, perhaps nothing is possible. However, an art life here is always possible, because in New York art is taken seriously, and the art audience in itself is diverse.

Margot Lovejoy Margot Lovejoy is an artist and author, and is the 2007 recipient of the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award. Among her works are “Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media and Digital Currents.”