Voices in our head are usually not worth noting. Most of the time, they are amusing anecdotes or pressing reminders that circulate until thrown to the side. For sculptor Ella Kogan, these voices and sui generis images are the substructure for the stark and gripping pieces that she creates in her small New Jersey studio.
Ella separates herself from the work she creates, completely. Not only does this add to her firm belief in a creator-creation-love affair, but it brings to life these sculptures that potently illustrate human turmoil and dissolve any semblance of falsity. There is a certain pride that comes with creating engaging artwork, but there is something entirely different when giving birth to a piece worth having a conversation with.
Do you remember your first sculpting experience?
It was purely by accident. I was in my early thirties when my son came home from school and needed clay for a school project. Like any mother, I began to help him out with his assignment and before I knew it, my hands molded miniature faces with astonishing speed. They worked frantically, as if they knew exactly what to do. For quite some time, I’ve had a mind full of different images, of faces, and now they were coming to life with the help of sculpey. Though I never tried sculpting before, I created a whole series of small expressions within the first week. It seemed as though my hands were working autonomously, which really forced an independence between me and my artwork. It was exhilarating and somewhat frightening.
Do you always work with clay?
Yes. I continue to experience an amazing connection with this medium. I love clay’s sensory and malleable nature, and the way it succumbs to my efforts. I feel that the clay and I have a symbiotic relationship.
Can you tell me about your sculpting process?
It all starts with a vague image in my head. They are premature and gradually materialize over time. I avoid using models. Every one of my sculptures is a collective image, which must convey and communicate a special message. To achieve that effect, I have to feel the soul behind the face I see, uncover its secret life and “inhabit” the person beneath the façade. Only after that, I am ready to start the sculpting process. This part of my work is complicated, conflicting and emotional. The next stage is different: rational, confident and thought through to a T. I know exactly what I want to achieve, and I work on it with a steady hand.
You grew up in St. Petersburg then moved to the US. How has your upbringing influenced your life as a professional artist?
My environment growing up was saturated with art, music and beautiful things. My father is a well-known Russian painter, whose work is displayed in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and sought after by private collectors. As a disciplinarian, he was eager to get me involved in the arts. I started out as a classical pianist and singer. Art has always been an integral part of my life and all I needed was a form of creative expression which resonated the most with my inner self. I discovered it in sculpting, and it became my calling.
How do you choose the subjects of your pieces?
For me, choosing a subject for a piece is never a conscious, intentional process. Ideas for each new work come to me in mysterious ways, like they are “blessings from the skies”. I’m not religious, but when I start working on a piece, I know that there are outside forces that guide me. My work has an underlying aspect based on my own experiences and my relationship with the world, but it’s these obscurities that make my art what it is. It’s a response to a vision.
Choose a few words to describe your art.
That’s almost impossible! I reflect on my art and I make it, but I, Ella, consider myself to be completely separate from it. My work exists on a detached platform. I try to avoid oversimplifying reality or embellishing my work and each sculpture has a different story to tell. If I had to describe them, it would be best to say that the absence of visual symmetry in my sculptures creates its own balance and harmony. These sculptures are freedom. They are vitality and movement. They are conversation.
What motivates you to sculpt? What is your message?
Transformation and power through art. My sculptures challenge stereotypes and convention, and make people kinder, more compassionate and accepting of deviation. I have always been fascinated with uncovering the true self within every human being. There’s a “who” behind each face and I am bringing out the concealed and the stained. I want my pieces to start a dialogue that’s permeated with truth. Let people disagree about my work – the main thing is for my sculptures to provoke a powerful and lasting emotional response.
I know there is a therapeutic foundation to your sculptures. Explain that?
As an artist, I have a sensitivity to all kinds of people and I infuse my art with that. I want my pieces to speak many languages, address messages of goodwill, have the ability to combine cultural and social backgrounds, without distinctions of wealth, education or personal experience. The sculptures, on their own, are a cure for loneliness, estrangement and social isolation. Comfort.
What is your studio like?
Small. But it doesn’t matter. I do have an amazing stereo sound system in it, which is necessary.
On your website, you state that your work “reflects reality on a metaphysical level” and it portrays “the inherent turmoil of the human predicament.” What does it take to get to that level?
My focus is on subtle and complex issues as the meaning of existence, underlying truths, and contradictions of the inner self. Pretty sculptures that are pleasing to the eye are not my thing. This has nothing to do with personal arrogance – it is a sense of my mission as an artist to reflect reality on a deep and profound level, like a surgeon who has acute sentiments but cannot perform surgery unless he is confident, even-keeled and unemotional. I have to remain calm while I create sculptures that reflect the tensions and conflicts of our human predicament. People visit modern galleries and begin to believe that a pile of dirty clothes or a few tires on the floor represent true art. Galleries promote this vision of art, thus shaping public opinion of fashion. I would like my art to change the way people think and live. What it takes to get there is the strong belief that art shapes people’s hearts and minds and makes them better – more capable of loving, more forgiving and compassionate, more mindful of others.
You can see more of Ella’s work on her site: www.koganart.com
By Samantha Matcovsky
Photos courtesy of Ella Kogan