Charles Seplowin discovered sculpture as a college student back in the sixties, and except for a period of time as a graphic artist, he has dedicated himself to sculpture for the past fifty years. Seplowin’s work has been exhibited in numerous solo and groups shows in the U.S. and Mexico. His sculptures are also in permanent installations, including in the collection of the Art Museum of the Americas and in the Westbeth courtyard. A teacher throughout his career, he is currently on the faculty of Lehman College. Seplowin credits Westbeth for making his life as an artist possible: “This building has been the inspiration and center of everything I’ve ever done.” Westbeth is where Seplowin has created his artworks and where he has made his home with his wife Ria and their two children, Tahra and Rohan.
Terry Stoller spoke with Charles Seplowin in March 2016 about his background and his university training; his experimentation with such materials as Styrofoam and rubber bands; his discovery of Westbeth, which led to an early job at the Modern Art Foundry; his work in graphic design; his various teaching positions; and his use of technology like computer graphics and computerized cutting machines to create artworks.
Terry Stoller: I read that you were born in New York City but grew up in Puerto Rico.
Charles Seplowin: Well, I was born in New York City, and when I was 2, I went to live with my grandmother in Middletown, New York. When my mother remarried, we lived with my new father in Middletown. Then we moved to Puerto Rico when I was a teenager. I came back to the States for college.
And that’s when you chose to become a sculptor? I know you’ve also worked in jewelry.
I went to the University of New Hampshire [UNH] and took a number of courses, and the art department was where I felt the most comfortable. I was sort of adopted by a teacher there, Arthur Balderacchi. I started to work in sculpture, and I did a couple of metals, but they didn’t have any equipment there. At the time, there were a lot of small foundries in New Hampshire. So I began to work in Styrofoam, all the way back then. I would take a little heater, and I would cut a snippet out of the coils, and I’d roll out the wire; then I’d attach the coils back to the heater, and I was able to cut foam that way. So I never really stopped using that basic procedure. And we would bury the foam in French sand and then pour metal into it. That’s how I did most of my metal casting. They called it a lost Styrofoam process, and it was very new at the time. Eventually, I learned with my teacher how to build a metal foundry, and we built one at UNH.
What was the response to your using the lost Styrofoam process?
Fairly good. It was unusual, and people really didn’t understand how I was able to get the metal casting. I met a number of people from Rhode Island School of Design [RISD], and they were just experimenting with casting, and they were quite positive about my work and my process, and they brought me in as a graduate student at RISD. This was in about 1968. Just before I graduated in 1970, I remember thinking: I was getting out school—where was I going to live? That was a great terror in my mind. Everyone at the school said, Live anywhere, but never in New York. Don’t sell your soul. Stay away from the cities. Everyone was into California and Oregon, and all those interesting places, and living with nature and working with organic forms. That was the big thing at the school.
The students and the faculty mentioned New York so often as the worst place to live that I thought, That has to be interesting. Then the school offered buses to New York for free, and I came down here immediately. I was going to buy a loft on Greene Street, but I got lost, and I ended up in front of Westbeth. I asked someone who was walking by where Greene Street was. It was Joel Brody. He still lives in the building. Westbeth was just beginning. He said, “Why do you want to go to Greene Street?” I said, “I’m thinking of buying a loft there.” He said, “Don’t do that. Then you’ll be working for your loft. Everybody just works for their loft. If you want to make art, you live here.”
I remember walking into the office and filling out forms for an apartment. I had gotten a grant to build a foundry. So I mentioned to the people in the office that I had this grant to build a foundry and asked if they were interested. If I couldn’t live here, I said, it didn’t matter. Maybe I could build a foundry here and live nearby. They were very interested in the foundry. They said they were going to have a meeting with the sculptors the next week and to come on down. And they brought in Bob Spring from the Modern Art Foundry to ask me some questions. I got along so well with Bob Spring that he hired me. I hadn’t totally graduated yet. I talked to the building, and they said, “We’re not ready for building the foundry yet, but we’d like you around.”*
In June, down I came and moved in and went to work at the Modern Art Foundry. It’s out in Queens, and it’s one of the great art foundries in New York City. I got to work with Jacques Lipchitz. All the big artists were casting there. And Bob Spring was an amazing person to work with. And Pat Dubar did all the patinas. Everyone came to have her color their works. She taught me a lot.
I got back into casting again and back into wax. I tried wax a lot because that was easy to do at the Foundry, and I was experimenting. One of the things I’ve always done is experiment with materials. That’s been the core of my work.
You had a show at Warren Benedek Gallery in SoHo in 1974 of artwork with rubber bands. What was the inspiration for working with rubber bands?
I had never seen that before, and it seemed like an interesting material to work with. I remember going down to the blueberry fields in New Jersey to get rubber bands in a different shade of blue, which farmers used for their packaging. And going all over the place to get the different colored rubber bands that I was going to work with. At that time, Canal Street was the most incredible place in the world to hunt for materials, and I could get sheets of rubber.
For that show, you had work on the floor as well as hanging from the ceiling.
On the wall. All over the place.
Was that part of the zeitgeist? Or were you pursuing an idea you had?
I was working with mathematical progressions. So I was interested in coming up with a mathematical formula and then folding the rubber according to the formula I came up with to see what it would look like. And I still teach the mathematics behind great art because the brain responds to those proportions.
When did you stop working at the Modern Art Foundry?
I stopped working there when I began to do some teaching. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I remember going to the Guggenheim Museum and meeting some people, and they hired me to start a new program to teach children art. So I worked there teaching sculpture. I was doing simple things that the kids could work with. I went to different workshops, picking up wood pieces, and then we would glue them together or, with simple drills and screws, put them together. The program grew quite a bit, so the Guggenheim was looking for a place to move it to. At that time, Mourlot Studios—a lithographic company that had rented space off the Westbeth courtyard—had moved out. I got the people from the Guggenheim together with Westbeth, and the Guggenheim program moved here. I taught at that program for a number of years because it was right here in the building.
In the late eighties, I had an accident and really mangled my wrist and couldn’t do sculpture. I was told it was going to take a year for my wrist to heal. I had two operations on it. I remember thinking, What am I going to do now? A friend of mine in the building said, “Why don’t you do graphic design?” I said, “I don’t do graphic design.” He said, “If you’re a sculptor, you can do graphic design. It’s all art.” I went for an interview at Asphalt Green, which was looking for a graphic designer. They were asking me all kinds of questions, and I was thinking, I don’t know what they’re talking about. But I kept saying, “Let the kids organize the stuff, and we can work from there.” So they hired me. And I learned graphic design as I was doing it and eventually did the graphic design on the Apple computers that were coming up. Photoshop came out; then Illustrator came out. And I did all the work on Illustrator. Finally the organization got so big—a Wall Street magnate was running it now—it was time to leave. I was also doing adjunct teaching at Montclair State University at the time.
That’s where you worked in jewelry. How did you take up jewelry?
When I hurt my wrist, I couldn’t do the sculpture anymore. My department was very nice and said maybe I could do something small and light. So I learned jewelry, and I was head of the jewelry division. I did a lot of forming in metal casting. It was right up my alley. It was just smaller in scale. I learned a lot there.
After my wife and I had our first child, Tahra (and much later, we had our second child, Rohan), the realization hit me that it was time to make more of a solid living. I sent out a paper to different schools, saying: Art Department in a Box. In other words, you don’t need to have a huge art department with studios and equipment. You can actually run it all off a computer. Bloomfield College wrote to me saying they were very interested in my idea. They were just starting up an art program, and they were a small school with not too much space. I taught Photoshop and Illustrator there, with a bent toward art. We did mostly graphic design there.
When 3D programs came out, I thought, Now I can really move the sculpture into this area. I learned the 3D programs, figuring out myself what I could do. There was no way to translate it yet into an object. But if I could see an image on a piece of paper, I could make it in the studio. I didn’t have formal training in drawing, and I wasn’t that good at it, but I learned drawing on the computer, and that came to me very easily.
In 2000, I got a sabbatical from Bloomfield to learn more about 3D. I had read that Lehman College was launching interesting 3D programs in their art department, so I went to Lehman to take a 3D course. They wanted to develop their graphic design department, and we made a bargain. I would learn the 3D programs on a Silicon Graphics machine. I started working with Flash, and taught some Flash courses at Lehman. They loved the new technology and hired me for a full-time position.
To go back to 1983, your work was in a show at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America in DC.** Your early interest was in Styrofoam, but that piece was in steel. What determined your use of certain materials?
I think the basic element in all my work was working with sheet material rather than a bag of plaster or a block of wax. I liked wood. I did a lot of wood sculptures, by steaming wood and bending it and shaping it. I was interested in the manipulation of a sheet to get a form because that was the easiest thing to do in factories, and it was the easiest thing to do in my own studio at Westbeth.
And did you work in steel for that particular sculpture because steel was more respected as a material?
I could put it outside. Now I know how to treat Styrofoam so that it can go outside. Now I can work in a larger scale, and I can coat it. For example, I had a large piece outside for a year in Mexico—where they really get rain and sun—and it held up beautifully. It took me a while until I could get to that point.
On your website, you say that your artistic roots are in traditional geometric abstraction. What does that allow you to do with your work?
I’ve always buzzed around that area. I always liked the clean lines of geometry, but then I went toward an organic geometry. So instead of squares, maybe round it off, maybe start from a geometric point, but soften it in a way. And I’ve pulled away quite a bit from that with the new pieces. The computer does squares and circles and geometry really well; I wanted to do organic shapes now. I’ve been very influenced by the unusual plant shapes found in Puerto Rico. (It turns out that our house there was bought by the government and turned into an arboretum.) My inspiration for my current work is mixing those plant shapes with geometric forms to create new sculptural ideas.
We’ve been talking about the computer in the process, but at what point do you engage hands-on with the sculpture?
For a long time, the computer just cut out the flat shape, but you still had to form it. One thing that I got in my education at RISD was: Don’t do your work in a studio; do it on a factory floor. They were really big about making art in factories. So I could take these sheets, and I could have rollers fold and bend them. I worked a lot in New Jersey in the steel factories there, producing the work. And then while I was at Lehman, I saw this ad for a computer-driven Styrofoam cutter. I went, Holy shit, it’s Styrofoam again, and it’s the computer.
You had stopped using Styrofoam?
I had stopped completely at that point. And then I saw this ability for putting my past ideas with my present love. So Lehman bought one of the early computerized Styrofoam cutters, which I still work with. And I started to teach the process of making sculpture with the machine. At Lehman, the art department is connected with the math and science department, so it was the perfect meshing. They were really interested in that. Since then, we’ve gone to the 3D printers.
Can you talk some more about what you do with the actual piece once you conceive the drawing and cut out the shape?
I carve it. I shape it. I color it. All the machine does is give me a module to work with that has some shape to it. Then I combine that module with other modules, and I get into the combined modules with very simple tools—a rasp, sandpaper, saw blades—and begin to shape the piece. The instant I do things with the computer, I want to do things the computer can’t do. There’s no way a computer can get this shape [he indicates the large complex sculpture hanging on his living room wall].
And you want to have a tactile relationship with the piece as a sculptor.
Right. You want to get your hands on it. Styrofoam came back as a very strong thing after all those years, and I could shape it and fold it. But it’s too expensive to cast. So I began to find ways of covering the foam itself so that it would be strong, which is what I’m experimenting with now.
You’ve written that you create a trompe l’oeil effect on the foam to make the piece look rusted.
I remember all the ways I learned to color bronze and aluminum, so that’s what I use to work on my foam. In a way, materials, rather than an image or a personal statement, have always been my guide. I’ve always gone with new materials and new ways to work with them. And that’s why I like to color the Styrofoam so that the sculptures look like heavy iron rusted pieces.
On your website, you write that “small is beautiful.” But you’ve also done large works. What is the consideration that goes into the size of a piece?
That goes back to the idea. Every sculptural idea that you have has a perfect size. Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s small. You need to get that sense of monumentality to the piece, where you’re not as a viewer thinking: I wish it were a little bigger; I wish it were smaller. Each good sculpture has found the scale that suits the idea of it. Monumentality is one of the things that a lot of sculptors search for in scale.
You’ve recently had a number of shows in Mexico.
It turns out that Mexico has a very strong history of geometric art. And that is alive and well in Mexico. When I went down there, I brought a Styrofoam piece with me. One of the curators lifted it up, thinking it was a piece of metal, and she screamed and said, “What is this?” I said, “Styrofoam.” She said, “Nobody works in Styrofoam.” I said, “I work in Styrofoam. But I really came down here to cast a piece in your foundries.” She said, “No, absolutely not. We have thousands of people who cast here in Mexico. Nobody works in Styrofoam. You want to work with us? You do Styrofoam. Mexico is on the cusp of bringing in heavy technology. We’re interested in art that derives from technology. That’s where we’re going, so you’re fitting a perfect slot here.”
In the summer of 2015, New York banned plastic foam containers because the material is not good for the environment. The court struck down the ban a few months later. However, working with the foam is probably not good for one’s health. Does that concern you?
Lately it has, because I have had some problems lung-wise. I’ve had to take great care of that. Doctors say I have to use a face mask when I work. The dust is not great. At school it’s good because we have very good ventilated rooms there. But after all these years, I have to be very careful about the foam dust.
What happens if Styrofoam is fully banned in the future?
I’ll go on to something else. Now 3D printers are the big thing. But you can only do small things with that. I’ll go back to traditional materials. Once I have a model or a drawing, that’s all I need. I’ve never been tied to anything. It’s my curiosity that I’ve been tied to. I’ve been a voyager following my curiosity of materials. I’ve found that materials have innate qualities, and if you can find a new way to work with even an old material, you will end up discovering imagery that has not been discovered yet. Because if you find the material and you define the tools you’re going to work with, you know what shapes and forms are going to come from that. So if you want to do something new, change your material or change your tool. And that’s how I teach sculpture.
The other day you told me that you lost your work in Hurricane Sandy , when the basement studios were completely flooded. What did you have down in the Sculpture Studio?
I had my entire life down there. Everything was in my studio, slides, everything. All I have left are the pieces hanging up here in my apartment. That was a hard time. I’ve never not had a studio, and suddenly I didn’t have one. I remember thinking, What is the role of art in my life? At my age, do I want to start again? I had all these questions in my head. School was really good because I could work there. But it was kind of difficult to work with students around. It was a hard couple of years. Friends said, “You’ve got to get a studio and get back into it, Charlie.” I wrote one grant proposal and got it, from NYSCA. But I felt, Why am I getting a grant? I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to go back into it again. Then the people at the Galería Santiago Corral in Mexico wrote me saying they were giving me a one-man show. They had gone to all the collectors borrowing the pieces they had sold to them, and they put a show together. That really touched me. Up here, no one really cared, but they cared down there.
And then of all things, I got a call from the company that makes the Styrofoam cutter in France. The owner had come here, and I had met him. They were interested in getting into the university market and wanted to see what I was doing up at Lehman. And we had talked, and he said, “Why don’t you buy the cutter?” And I said, “Are you kidding? Those things are so expensive, $25,000, $30,000, and they’re so big. I live in an apartment.” My wife was not going to allow Styrofoam dust in our apartment. After the hurricane, he contacted me and said, “I read about Sandy. How is your studio?” I said, “It’s gone.” He said, “That’s a shame.” Then he called back saying, “We have a demo model here, and we’re putting our most advanced software on it. Would you like it?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “But it’s not for free. You have to pay us.” I said, “All right.” At least it was a price within a possibility. So they mailed the machine to me. Between the show in Mexico and the company in France coming up with the machine, I thought, Well, I guess I’m back to being a sculptor again. So I found another studio.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Yes. I was born Carlos Jose Montero de Garcia and was brought up Catholic by my grandmother in a Latin home where we spoke Spanish. As I said earlier, after my mother remarried, I went to live with my mother and my stepfather, who was a wonderful father and also a Conservative Jew. We were kosher at home and walked to the temple on Saturdays. That opened my life up to a new culture, and I was able to blend the two cultures. I had my Holy Communion as well as a bar mitzvah.
Marrying my wife Ria, who is Dutch, continued the blending of cultures for me. In fact, combining opposites is central to my work, and I continue to combine traditional art techniques with the new digital possibilities.
I also wanted to say something else about my teaching career. I was chair of the Lehman College art department for five years, and I have worked with many promising artists in my career there. Over the years, teaching has been more rewarding, not less. I am still learning, still improving, still discovering. I feel being a good teacher is one of the most important and influential roles I have experienced, besides being the father of two wonderful children, Tahra and Rohan.
*Seplowin says the foundry was never built at Westbeth owing to New York City fire laws.
** The museum is now called the Art Museum of the Americas (OAS).
To see more of Seplowin’s artwork, go to Seplowin.com.
All photos courtesy of Charles Seplowin.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2015 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council