Pat Lasch: Sculptor

Pat Lasch’s artwork draws from the crafts practiced by her family as well as from their life stories. Her interest in genealogy led to her sewing tondos representing generations that preceded her. With skills she learned in her youth, she sculpted “pastries” out of wood and paint. She went on to produce sculptures in plaster and bronze and mixed media, and to create dresses from acrylic paint. The title of a retrospective show of her work at the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2017 reflected the emotional depth of all her art: “Pat Lasch: Journeys of the Heart.” A widely exhibited artist, Lasch has also been the recipient of many grants and awards. It took a while for her to get a college teaching job, she says, but eventually she landed a position at the Rhode Island School of Design and later at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Terry Stoller spoke with Pat Lasch in July 2021 about the different periods of her work, from sewn pieces to pastry tube works to sculpture in plaster and bronze and mixed media; the influence of religion and the macabre in her work; her association with the historic women’s gallery A.I.R.; the process of creating her acrylic paint dresses; her newest project about Pope Joan; and building her own home.

Terry Stoller: You’ve described discrete periods with regard to your work. The first period involves the sewn tondos that you began in the 1960s.

Pat Lasch: I started tracking time around 1967. I did those tondos up until about 1975. They were based on genealogy. This is what my work was all about in the late ’60s and early ’70s—that we’re all related. If you go back twenty generations, it takes over one million people to make each one of us.

Tondo from Yab Yum series, 1970s.

This was abstract work. What was your inspiration for sewing the abstract tondos?

I had also done generational photographs of the family back to the 1800s. The sewn pieces were really numerical. They were trying to express how many people it took to make each one of us. Each one had about a million stitches. I was compared to a nun in a convent just sewing all the time. I took the stitching into the tondo form because it’s the circle of life as well as all the people. As you get further out, the bands become thicker and thicker. If you go back the twenty generations, it’s over a million stitches. It was unprimed muslin, and you could see the two little stitches on each side for parents, and then the parents’ parents, till the bands went back and got thicker. The field would be very empty where it was just the parents.

And you used gold thread.

Gold, silver, and copper. I’ve always had an attraction for metallics, iridescents and golds and silvers, and it runs through my work.

That’s especially beautiful in your prayer cloths. Are they part of the sewn work?

No. The gold leaf pieces were twenty years later. I started doing those pieces when my father got ill in 1994. In the Catholic Church, there’s a Lazarus Society. If someone is dying, you get together and sew a cloth covering for the coffin. As my father was dying, I started making these paper pieces with prayers sealed in them to cover his grave. Each piece has a prayer behind it. And there are all kinds of prayers, Catholic prayers, Jewish prayers, Buddhist prayers, prayers I made up—a call to the universe for being, for peace, for integration. I was going to bring the prayer cloth out to his grave and photograph it, but it’s been in my studio.

Prayer cloth, 1990s.

Your father was a pastry chef, and you began to make pastry tube works in the ’70s.

Yes, 1975. I had been working on the sewn pieces for about eight or nine years at that point, and my mother got cancer. I realized I had completed the statement with the sewn pieces. I was very touched by my mother’s illness. I started doing these portraits of my mother as a little girl, her communion, her confirmation, her wedding. They were thumb-size photographic pieces surrounded by paint squeezed through pastry tubes and wax paper cones. My grandmother and my mother were both seamstresses, and my father was a pastry chef. I surrounded each of their images with paint that was relevant to their work. The pieces I did with my mother look like stitched pieces. The pieces I did with my father were a lot of roses and flowers. I did my father as a young boy up to what I thought what was an old man at that time—at 57. That’s how those pieces started.

You learned the technique of using the pastry tube as a teenager in your father’s bakery. How did you figure out that acrylic paint would work the same way as icing? Isn’t the texture different?

No, it’s actually not. It’s a similar texture. I was going to the High School of Music and Art, and I was also working forty-one hours a week in my father’s business. I was leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning, and I would have at least three drawing classes a day. I would work in the business from 6 to 10 every night. Saturday mornings I decorated all the cakes, and Sunday I waited on all the customers from 6:30 in the morning to 7 at night.

When I went to Queens College in the late ’60s, I had two professors that were very important to me. Richard McDermott Miller and Richard Serra. Richard McDermott Miller said to me, Pat, why don’t you use some of the stuff from your own family? I had been thinking about all these genealogy things as family, but I hadn’t thought specifically of the crafts that each of my parents knew and my grandparents knew. They all were craftspeople working with their hands.

You’re identified as a feminist artist. The sewing work has a feminist connection. The pastry-tube work and your cakes are really your father’s work. Did you consider the cakes a feminist project?

Yes, and no. I had started joining ad hoc women’s groups in 1969. I was very aware that as a student, I never had a female professor in the studio arts. They were all men. I became very conscious of the fact that women were excluded. I was excluded for a long time from getting a college job. But I learned that particular part of my craft from my father. There’s an irony in that.

In the ’70s, you joined A.I.R., an organization for women artists. Yet you were also in shows with prominent male artists. You weren’t being excluded from shows.

No, I wasn’t being excluded, but I did once have a critic say to me, Why are you showing in a women’s gallery? You’re too good for that. That’s the image of where women were. I had wonderful dealers, and I got into very good shows.

You’ve had gallery representation for most of your career.

Yes, but also we took that into our own hands, meaning the A.I.R. women. We knew that galleries weren’t really showing women at the time. Even before A.I.R. opened, we did a show called “13 Women Artists” [1972] on Prince Street. It had Mary Miss in it, Louise Bourgeois, myself, and other women artists. I stayed with A.I.R. for almost a decade because galleries would pick you up and drop you. Whereas I always had something to fall back on, and I liked that idea. And I also liked that we supported one another.

I just realized that your galleries were women owned. 

Virginia Zabriskie was a woman gallerist. Kathryn Markel, Meredith Ward, Marilyn Pearl. I had one male gallerist, Richard Lerner of Lerner-Heller Gallery.

You make full-size cakes and miniature cakes out of wood, paint, and other materials, and you’ve been included in shows about food.

I remember being warned not to show my cakes. That no one would take me seriously because it looked like food. And I didn’t care. I loved making them. I think at that time there wasn’t that much food art being shown. The only person I can think of is Claes Oldenburg’s hamburgers, and afterward—I hadn’t been aware of him yet—Wayne Thiebaud was painting cakes. But my cakes got a lot of attention because they were unusual, and I was one of the first to focus on that. I started those in 1975.

50th Anniversary Tower 1929-1979, detail, 1979. Cake tower for MoMA’s anniversary celebration.

In 1979, you were commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for an anniversary “cake,” one of your towers. Are the towers all supposed to be cakes?

The towers were like cakes. You can see some of that in Italian cakes. The black towers were all named after my grandmother Wilhelmina, who had died when my father was 6. They were all devoted to her—Wilhelmina’s Bird’s Tower; Wilhelmina’s Bone Tower. Some of them had the bones from the chicken that I ate for dinner in them. They all had my hair in them.

Wilhelmina’s Bird Tower, 1979-1980. Wood, acrylic paint, glass beads, cut paper, hair, silver thread.

One is called Ivar’s Tower. Who is Ivar?

He was a Viking. I showed a lot in Sweden, and I met an older man who was a Viking expert. He took me to some of the sites where they have stone-shaped ships. I imagined Ivar going off in this ship with the Vikings to Valhalla, so I did that piece.

You were recently in a show in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art titled “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985.” You have said your work gets put into a decorative art category, but that your intentions are misunderstood.

My work visually is part of the movement, but I think people didn’t understand the symbolism and the emotional depth of those pieces for me. They were not just decorative. They were decorative to draw you in to the understanding of how important family is, how important our communication is, how important it is if you lose a parent and what that means when you’re a child. There was a lot of emotion from my family’s history in those pieces. I don’t think people understood that so clearly. Cakes mark our passages of time, our celebrations of birthdays; they mark our ceremonies. I ended up doing the black cakes because we never had any death cakes. I thought that was the last passage, and I should be making a celebration for the last passage as well.

In some of the cakes, especially the funerary cakes, you have “lace” underneath. How did you learn to use acrylic paint to make lace?

I figured it out myself. When I was a teenager, my father said to me, anything you can do with a pencil, you can do with a wax paper pastry cone. I’d make wax paper cones, and he would have me draw country scenes like trees and mountains in various forms of icing from mocha and white buttercream and chocolate. He had me do that so that my skill became better.

After the pastry tube works, from ’82 to ’87, you were working in plaster and mixed media. In 1982 you were awarded the Prix de Rome.

For the Rome prize, they give you a stipend and room and board at the American Academy, and you’re just there to do your work for a year. When I was in Rome, I got very drawn to the secco paintings at Pompeii. They’re not frescoes; they’re painted on. With a fresco, you mix the paint into the lime. With secco paintings, you apply the paint, and then wax is put on later. I just got so absorbed in the history of Rome. When I was in college, I always used different media. I love all kinds of materials. In Rome, I had access to the best plaster. And the men that worked at the Academy were very good to me when they saw I was interested in plaster. They were trying to fix up this old villa, and they would bring me anything I wanted.

Roman Resurrection I, 1983. Plaster, wire mesh, twigs, mixed media.

What were you making?

There’s one piece called Roman Resurrection I [1983]. That is mixed material, and it had to do with Catholicism, but also the mysteries of life. I found all the thorns in the park behind the Academy, and I used screening to build boxes within boxes. There’s an egg in the center of raised screened-in boxes. The impression of the egg is on the base. The piece refers to the mystery of the tomb and is about the paradoxes and mysteries of the universe. I used to go to Porta Portese in Rome. One day I was walking by, and I saw these little stuffed birds in a shop. I stopped in, and I bought the little bird. And I put him into the piece. He was looking at the egg, and he was trying to figure out how the egg got from the bottom of the piece to the enclosed raised box. It’s sort of like Christ’s resurrection.

You go on to a series of bronze pieces, one of which is in a collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are figurative works.

First, there was a whole series on the heart, and that was in the mid-’80s. I met my second husband in Rome at the American Academy. We were together about eight years. He lived up in Cambridge; he was at Harvard and used to commute. I began to feel alone in the marriage, and we separated around 1990. I started doing these images of women weeping. They were pretty much solitary figures, and they were about my aloneness.

The bronze sculpture at the Met includes a woman and a skeleton.

It’s called Self-Portrait: Renaissance Woman and Her Lover [1988]. He’s the bones lying head to head with the woman figure.

Your bronze sculptures have been described as intimately sized, as doll-like.

That piece is long and narrow, approximately 4 in. wide by 20 in. long.

Were you working on it in a foundry?

I had gotten a Pollock-Krasner grant in ’87. Basically how I used the grant was, I went to all these foundries, out in Queens, in Princeton, in Upstate New York. I taught myself foundry work by using this money to cast small pieces.

There’s an element of the macabre in some of your work, for instance the skeleton, the pins in cakes, poison chocolates, scissors, sharp objects. What would you say about the underbelly referenced in your pieces?

Isn’t that just life? There’s an awareness always of death. And being brought up a Catholic—if you look at Catholicism, it’s mysterious, cultlike. Communion was always very mystical. I’m very interested in old religions.

Echo, 1988–1990. Bronze, water.

In one of the bronze pieces, I put a female figure, and a skeleton is molesting the female figure from the back. That piece is called Echo [1988-90], and water pours over the sides so you hear water going down. Of course, water is transformational both in baptism and cleansing yourself. This piece was reflective of personal experience. I did several pieces of women with water, women by themselves.

Box of Poison Chocolates for Past Lovers, 1985. Mixed media.

You spoke about your second marriage breaking up. That led to another series.

The woman gone mad series. My husband fell in love with a graduate student, and I was really hurt and very pissed off. In 1985, I had made my first Box of Poison Cookies for Past Lovers because in 1982 my boyfriend of five years had ended up going off with my best friend. I was in the country, and I was cutting up these hearts, and I made the boxes of Poison Cookies. Then my second husband fell in love with a graduate student, and I was devastated. He had made the mistake of letting me cast his face. I was able to make figures 6 in. big that looked just like him. And I used that in my egg series. I had one of my grad students work with me. I had her cast my face in four stages of the egg slowly emerging from my mouth, with the egg coming out a little bit more each time. My ex-husband is French. He used to smoke Gauloises. I made an image of him with his hair and eyeglasses coming out of the fifth egg smoking a Gauloises cigarette. That was birthing him. When the New Museum mounted the “Bad Girls” exhibit in 1994, they had the sculpture of my face with an egg coming out of my mouth on the cover of the museum’s magazine.

You’ve had quite a number of residencies and grants, which facilitated your work. You had a Golden Foundation Residency in 2015, and that helped you with your dress series.

The smaller ones I was able to do on my own. But I don’t have the space at Westbeth that I needed. When I was at the Golden Residency, I was able to cast a 4 ft. by 8 ft. sheet of paint that looked like satin. I mixed the paints I wanted to get my iridescent, to make it look like satin. They bought a special piece of plexiglass so that I could make the large piece, and I was able to build a cardboard box to put over it. (It had to be temperature-controlled, and it had to dry out extremely slowly.) After I poured the paint on the plexiglass and it cured, I’d have to pull the paint up from the plexiglass. I needed a person on the other side, and I would put a layer of talcum powder down so that the paint would not stick to itself. I was able to put the pieces together at Yaddo. I couldn’t do that at home because my studio is too small.

How did you put it together? You have “lace” pieces that go on the dress.

It’s in three pieces. The bodice is on a mannequin now. And there’s the skirt and the train, which is 9 ft. long. It took me about a year and a half to cast the pieces. I hand-sewed the skirt together just like it was fabric. It doesn’t break because I use special polymer paint.

A Life Blessed: Wedding Dress, 2016. Acrylic paint, baroque pearls, glass beads, crystals. Detail.

You had access to high-tech paints at Golden.

What’s wonderful about Golden is that the technicians are at your disposal. I would tell them what I wanted to achieve, and they would tell me which paints were the best to achieve it with. They made a special paint for me that I could model with my hands. They did everything for me to get the maximum of what my intentions were.

You just asked about the macabre, and most people see the small dresses as very beautiful little dresses. They each have names. One is called Christening Dress, H.V., Four Pregnancies, Two Births [2014]. The implication is what happened to the other two pregnancies. Women have miscarriages; they have abortions and the suffering that goes with that.

Christening Dress, H.V., Four Pregnancies, Two Births, 2014. Acrylic paint, baroque pearls.

How did the retrospective show at the Palm Springs Art Museum come about?

The show was in 2017. Mara Gladstone was the curator. She wanted to put together a survey of my work because nobody had done that. We worked on it for about a year. It was about forty-three years of my work. What was wonderful about it was that the curator from MOCA on the West Coast didn’t know my work. She saw the show, and MOCA put two of my Veil Series II [1978-81] plus a tower owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum into the Pattern and Decoration show. Then MOCA ended up buying one piece, with a promised gift for another.

Now you’re doing a Pope Joan project.

There’s the myth of Pope Joan from the ninth century. The story is that there was a woman who deceived the powers that be within the church, and she rose to become Pope. She apparently gave birth in the streets, and that’s how they found out she was a woman. I’m making a commentary on the church, but it’s a commentary for the society at large, that women can be the power and do anything that a man can do. Physically maybe not, because we’re not quite as strong on upper build, but intellectually we probably even have advantages.

What form is it going to take?

I’m dressing her. I’m making her vestments in acrylic paint, and her jewelry. I’m doing a series of shoes and gloves, and I’ll do a papal hat. There won’t be a figure in it, just the garment and the accoutrements. These will look like embroidery, but will have lace too, especially the gloves. I’m going to use a combination on the gloves with beading. I’m using actual cotton gloves, and then the lace will be my acrylic paint. It’s a mixed media project. I’d like to put it together as a show.

I’ve already been working on it. I lost about a year and a half of my life with the fall I had. I had an accident in November 2018. I’ve been working on the project when I could work again. I couldn’t do much with my hands and my back. I did a lot of the beading because I could lie down without being in pain.

Any thoughts about living at Westbeth? You are an original tenant here, but I know you also have a place upstate.

I built my own house in Upstate New York when I was in my 40s. I did it for a specific reason. I had always wanted to build a house since I was 9 years old. And Westbeth was precarious for a long time, and I thought, I’m an artist, and I’ve got to have a home that I can be sure will be there. If I sold a piece, I bought lumber, and I built my house stick by stick. Just so I would know if something happened to Westbeth, I’d have a place to go to.

To see more of Pat Lasch’s work, go to:

Credits—Photos: Headshot: Melinda Photis; 50th Anniversary Tower: Pat Lasch; Roman Resurrection I and Christening Dress: David Plakke; all other images of artwork except tondo and prayer cloth: Palm Springs Art Museum. All images courtesy of Pat Lasch. Caption material for artwork, except tondo and prayer cloth, from “Pat Lasch: Journeys of the Heart” catalog, Palm Springs Art Museum, 2017.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2021 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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