Clay menagerie at Newfield artist’s studio

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Driving out into the hills of Newfield after a snowstorm is breathtaking and dicey. That is where the studio of local artist Treacy Ziegler is located. Her directions state to drive to the second barn situated off the ruddy driveway.
The barn’s hot pink doors and turquoise trim rebel against the winter woods, hinting that there is something going on in there. True, this barn houses animals, albeit clay ones not native to the area.

Sculptures of a life-size camel and 12-foot headless giraffe greet visitors upon entering. (The giraffe’s head and neck are on a dolley off to the side.) Initially, the studio contained two printing presses for monoprints. About four years ago, it expanded out as well as up into an industrial and utilitarian space to accommodate her sculpture work. 

“The parents of my son’s friend came out to visit once, expecting an artist’s studio to have Oriental rugs and fancy furnishings,” she said. 

Instead, they saw the makeshift clay incubator affectionately known as her “Easy Bake oven,” cobbled together with two-by-fours, lightbulbs and foam board.

Ziegler is drawn to working with museums and libraries. This spring, she’ll be at the Noyes Museum of Art in Atlantic City, followed by a solo show this fall at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, tentatively titled “Under a Concrete Sky.” The camel and giraffe are the main pieces of the exhibit opening in September 2020. Her process is thoughtful and flexible.

“I always change my design, going with the flow,” she explained, pointing out the trailer she will use to transport the pieces. 

The trailer is only six feet high, half the height of her giraffe. Ziegler spent time at the Rochester Zoo observing and sketching the giraffe.

“I spend a lot of time on anatomy and character,” she said. Anatomy, she said, is “the integrity of the being, both bones and emotion, a layering of existence.”

Back in her Newfield studio, these sketches were translated into 12-foot drawings of the giraffe in several views. She said climbing that high on a ladder was intimidating. The drawings are then used to figure out the armature, or framework, of the piece.

“A piece is only as good as its armature,” she said. “It has to be able to hold 800 pounds of clay.”

Process, not pretense, drives Ziegler.

“It’s interesting to see process and let it show,” Ziegler said. “There are no ready-mades; you don’t buy anything - you make it.”

Last January, she made 1,000 pounds of clay in 30-pound batches. 

“Five electric turkey roasters were going all day to produce 150 pounds,” she said.

Clay can be re-used and actually improves with age. Some sculptors will their clay. Ziegler’s husband, also an artist, inherited 80-year-old clay made from motor oil. She wanted a less toxic recipe and developed one that uses vaseline, baby oil, wax and powdered clay. It is this philosophy that led Ziegler to take welding classes at TST BOCES, allowing her to fabricate her own armature, platforms and anything else she needs.

The two layers of mold over the clay form are rubber slathered with plaster. Once removed from the clay, the paper pulp is pressed into the mold, taking the impression of the original clay. The rubber gives the fine details created in the clay, while the plaster on top gives the supporting structure to the rubber.

The giraffe cannot be cast in one piece. Seeking out natural breaks in the anatomy, she works to divide it into manageable pieces for her exhibit. The giraffe will be separated into 27 sections, each leg into four to six sections, the torso 10 and the neck into six distinct areas. Aluminum cans are transformed into shims, creating walls for the sections and allow for easy reconstruction of the pieces in the final form. 

“I collect from neighbors whatever they drank in the last month,” she said. “I’m happy they save them for me.”

Some of these individual pieces can weigh as much as 30 pounds.

“I have to be physically fit to get under and around the piece,” Ziegler said.

She has three hoists to help her with this task.

In addition to making art, Ziegler teaches it, volunteering in prisons around the country.  She currently heads up the art program for Prisoner Express (PE), a local nonprofit based out of the Durland Alternatives Library that provides educational and self-expression opportunities for incarcerated individuals. The hundreds of letters PE receives from folks wanting to sign up for the newsletter and programming become materials for her sculptures.

“What could you do with all these letters?” Ziegler said. “I thought I could put them in a cage but then thought ‘who cares?’ There’s no aesthetic there. For me, it makes sense to take these letters and make something visual.” 

Ziegler shreds the letters, soaking them overnight in five gallon buckets and whizzing them up in a commercial grade blender to create pulp for her sculptures. 

Some of the letters she used were chosen intentionally. “Without want or need, I turn inward and feed on my heart” will be cast in paper made from the letters of prisoners living in solitary confinement. The camel relies on its internal water source to survive the desert harshness; the prisoner in solitary confinement depends on heart.

The letters represent two extreme situations of solitary confinement: Billy, who hung himself in his cell, and Jerome, who taught himself to read in solitary. Both sets of letters reflect intense depression, Ziegler said.

Prisoner Express is currently working with a librarian to archive journals, essays and artwork received from participants over the last two decades.

Working with the incarcerated population has impacted Ziegler’s professional life in interesting ways. She has written extensively and presented around the country sharing her experiences and the works of some of her students. Those same experiences have severed some connections in the art world.

“I suddenly became less ‘sellable’ working with prisoners,” she said. “My gallery contact was aghast, saying that nobody wants to buy art made from the letters of prisoners.” 

But not one to bend to such attitudes, Ziegler said that’s part of the nature of art.

“Art is amoral,” she said. “I know because I’ve been to art school. ... Some of the best artists are bound for bad things.” 

Yet, Ziegler is not trying to be edgy or provocative.

“I believe that art needs to stand on its own,” she said. “If the viewer needed to know that these [sculptures] were made out of letters to be interesting, I’d burn it all. I don’t think art is a statement; it’s an aesthetic.”

In Brief:

Happening at the library

The Newfield Public Library is the latest stop on the Prisoner Express Traveling Art Show libraries tour. The exhibit, “Animal I Become,” features the work of incarcerated individuals who have participated in the correspondence art program led by Newfield-based artist Treacy Ziegler. Be sure to experience the powerful images and stories currently on display.

Starting this month, the library will host a STEAM-based book club for middle school aged students. Also new is the Technology Series for adults, where everyday and emerging technologies will be explained. Be sure to stop by the Library or visit www.newfieldpubliclibrary.com  for details on these and other upcoming events at the Newfield Public Library.  

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