Loren Eiferman: Drawing in Wood

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The aritst

Loren Eiferman sees her work as the “ultimate recycling”. She collects sticks and branches that have fallen to the ground and typically forms her sculptures by joining together hundreds of small pieces of wood into a cohesive whole through a unique technique she has developed for over 25 years.

What brought you to sculpture?

I seem to be wired for sculpture. Even as a young child, I was always making things out of the simplest materials. Discovering art at a young age, I studied sculpture throughout my high school and college years. In high school, I even took evening and weekend clay and sculpture classes at Brooklyn College and at The Brooklyn Museum Art School. After class each week, I would wander through the museum, captivated by their African and Egyptian collections. It was a true education. After graduating from college, I traveled throughout Mexico and Central America, drawing and painting in my travel notebook. Upon my return to New York City, I moved into a tiny 300 square foot apartment in Little Italy. I turned one of my three small rooms into my art studio, focusing on large 4’ x 6’ paintings on paper. One very hot and humid August day, my three walls were covered with completed paintings that weren’t able to dry due to all that humidity. Unable to paint that day and looking for a creative outlet, I picked up a piece of balsa wood that was on my drafting table and a straight edged razor blade and started whittling away. Literally 8 hours passed as if it was a mere moment, without any interruptions (these were the days before the internet and Instagram). Realizing that I’m more at home as a sculptor rather than a painter was an epiphany.

I began sculpting forms made of balsa wood by using a straight- edged razor blades as my only tool. Since then, my work has evolved organically, and my toolkit has expanded substantially – from carving collected small sticks using actual whittling tools, to working on bigger sticks, utilizing a Dremel tool, all the way to working on sticks of all shapes and sizes with a Foredom flexible shaft tool along with a Japanese pull saw and a drill.

Tell me about your material and how do you work with it?

I start out each day with a walk, collecting tree limbs and branches.  I then bring them up to my studio and let these sticks sit for a period of time to make sure the wood is dry and cured and won’t check or crack. I have what I like to call a “sea of sticks” in my studio. This is the raw material that I work with.  I usually start out with a drawing of what I want my sculpture to look like.  I then search for shapes within my stick pile that correspond to the shapes in my drawing.  Obviously, I will never find exactly the right shapes and forms in nature that perfectly correlate to my drawing, so I start creating the form from scratch. I cut small shapes of wood and then join these small shapes together using dowels and wood glue.  My work is not steam bent. Instead, it is made from many (frequently hundreds) of small shaped pieces of wood. I then fill all the open joints with a wood putty, wait for it to dry and then sand it. This puttying process usually needs to be repeated at least three times until the final sanded work looks as if it was born in nature and the line is continuous. It’s a very time consuming process and each sculpture takes me a minimum of a month to build, frequently more. I often think of my sculptures as drawings but in wood.

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“Mandala/ Quasicrystal”, 2014, 266 pieces of wood with oil paint, 33” x 33” x 10”.

Most of your sculptures are abstracted and resonate with natural, geometric, decorative or even calligraphic forms. Your figurative clay work from 2010-2011 seems to depart from that. What is the origin of this series and how do you see it in context of your overall work?

My husband is a filmmaker who made a documentary in 2009 called “Crude: The Real Price of Oil” about a decades-long environmental class action lawsuit brought by five indigenous tribes from the Ecuadorian Amazon against Chevron. The suit alleged that massive pollution led to the creation of a cancer death zone the size of Rhode Island due to the oil drilling practices of and by Texaco from the late 1960’s to the early 1990’s. Chevron merged with Texaco in 2000, so Chevron inherited the lawsuit. Because my husband had behind the scenes access to the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case, Chevron subpoenaed all of the outtakes from his film. My husband believed that as a journalist he was constitutionally protected under the first amendment from handing all that footage over, so he fought the subpoena. This legal case became a big first amendment battle, which got very ugly and caused us a lot of unfair financial stress and concern for our well-being. 2010 therefore was a harrowing year for us.

We lost in court and appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second circuit and lost again, ultimately being ordered to turn over the bulk of his footage. During the time of preparing for these court proceedings, I literally felt like I was being suffocated. We felt bullied and intimated by the process and by the power of seemingly limitless $1000-an-hour-lawyers. We don’t know who sent them, but private investigators photographed me picking up our young daughters from the yellow school bus stop at the bottom of our driveway. We heard distinct clicking sounds on our phone to suggest that someone was listening in. We were under extreme financial pressure, fearing we would lose everything we had built – all because my husband was defending his rights under the First Amendment.

During this stressful time I had trouble creating my wood sculptures. They require many hours of very intensive labor and all I had was an hour here or there to work in my studio. I had a hard time focusing, as I began ruminating on how corporate power has eroded our basic liberties and the well-being of the country, from Citizen’s United to climate change denial. So I picked up some clay that was in my studio and started sculpting these heads. My first work I created during this period was a multi-part sculpture called They Robbed Us Blind. This work shows portraits of 12 imaginary corporate CEO’s with their noses up in the air, sitting on top of a slab of gold bullion with the name of their fictional corporations etched into a brass plaque that is reminiscent of actual companies. Instead of “Massey Energy” the brass plaque reads “Messy Energy” instead of “Halliburton” the plaque reads “Hell-iburton” and so on. This was a way to get my anger channeled into something more creative. Working in clay the way I did, created an immediate result and it became my daily therapy.

But after making many of these works, it occurred to me that I don’t want my work to come from a place of anger. That is not who I am. The last piece I created in clay during this period was a work called, Dreams of Our Ancestors. With this work, I sculpted the portraits of seven amazing women from history that either started or had an impact upon a world religion. These women are all gathered and lying on top of a pillow. These women were phenomenal beings from Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church) to Sun Bu’er (one of the seven Taoist masters). Strangely, after I completed this work, I truly felt the strength from these women guiding me back into working with my natural wood sculptures. I now make portraits of people but they are no longer in clay. Instead, these portraits are small drawings and paintings that I sketch out daily.

Dreams of Our Ancestors, 2011, 17″x21″x6″, clay with iron metal coating and rust patina, and pillow

I am looking at Reliquaries. Your forms there particularly make me think of a ritual. What are your sources and does the ritual play a role in your work?

The Reliquary series was a direct offshoot of my Vases and Container series. Women throughout history have frequently been symbolized through art as a vase or a container. As women, yes, we physically contain bones, organs, blood, skin but thoughts, emotions and ideas pass through us as well. With Vases and Containers, I was creating a body of work that was all about asking questions of who we are, what do we really contain inside, what are the connections with one another, what passes through us? My feeling is that we are open just like these wood vases, each sculpture contains a unique form but these open sculptures literally can’t contain or hold anything (maybe we can contain just love?) However, with Reliquary, I was creating vases that do contain something, but deep down under many layers. There is an open vase inside another open vase inside another that might contain something almost holy or precious. It is almost like I was expressing the idea with this series, that we all have a soul, a purposeful and precious spark or energy buried deep within ourselves. I do think all those years wandering in the Brooklyn Museum Egyptian Wing did have an impact on me. I think my approach to art these days is more spiritually based. Trying to find connections between us and the world that surrounds us all, which in practice might almost be like a rite or ritual.

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“To the Core”, 2008, 54” x 24” x 3”, wood, ashes, matte medium and linseed oil.

Tell me about Nature Will Heal, specifically Detritus (2016) and Barbie Convertible. What is the genesis and how do you see the relationship between the pieces?

I truly believe that Mother Nature has the ability to heal this planet. Hopefully we as a species will still be around to witness this healing. This is not science. It’s a gut reaction to seeing how our planet transforms from season to season.  Walking in the woods, watching the dead trees on the ground create food for the new young seedlings popping out of the ground. I see that there is a cycle and a rhythm to our planet, constantly growing, changing and transforming.  One day, I was cleaning out my basement and found all these large plastic bags filled with plastic toys from my daughters’ childhood.  I thought this is insane: plastic within more plastic.  I thought — what are we doing on this planet creating all these pollution-laden toys for our children? So I started this series, Nature Will Heal for which I built these plant-like forms where the “seeds and seedpods” were made from discarded junk.  These seeds could be a plastic Barbie convertible car or a Polly Pocket hunk of plastic or even a seedpod that is made entirely from obsolete electronic parts. But, in all these works, the plant is growing around this garbage, consuming and transforming what was once junk and turning it into a new form.

The Barbie Convertible was particularly a tough one to create. It was physically difficult to build because the form is complex and it was also emotionally difficult. My youngest daughter really loved that red Barbie plastic convertible car but it had been sitting broken, literally gathering dust in our basement for five years. Despite having outgrown it, I still had to plead with her to lend it to me for my work. She finally agreed, and now it’s encased in wood and transformed into a new life. Detritus was literally the detritus that had fallen to the bottom of those plastic bags. This sculpture is filled with bits of plastic from party favors given out at countless children’s birthday parties, as if these discarded plastic bits were invaluable objects imbued with some purpose or meaning. I then wrapped the outside layer of the “flower” in colorful plastic shopping bags. This detritus is now all encased into strange wood flower, planted and growing from the earth-, nature will heal.

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“Nature Will Heal/ Detritus”, 2016, 89 pieces of wood with plastic toys, burlap, earth, matte medium, straw and plastic garbage bags, 27” x 14” x 11”.

Your work ranges from utilizing the color of the natural material to bright and vivid colors. What is your approach to color?

I used to be a painter and I find myself these days truly missing working with color. I think that’s one of the reasons why I now make small sketches and drawings in my sketchbook each morning. For these morning drawings, I use different colored crayons, chalks and materials. It’s a way for me to create and see something finished relatively quickly and with color! For my wood sculptures I employ varying finishes, from the earthy and simple like linseed oil or earth mixed with ashes to vibrant pastels thinned with linseed oil and turpentine. Each work is different and the finishes for each piece are unique. It truly depends on the piece. For example when I was working on my “Celestial” series inspired by the Hubble Telescope, a number of those pieces contain a sparkly colored sand finish, almost as if they were twinkling from outer space. I let the work dictate the finish that is used. For my latest body of work inspired by the Voynich Manuscript, many of the vivid colors that I use echo the colors from the original manuscript.

What is the idea behind Voynich Manuscript?

For the past several years, I have been inspired by a mysterious manuscript from the 15th century called The Voynich Manuscript.  Currently housed at the Yale’s Beinicke Library, this ancient manuscript was written in an unknown language, by an unknown author for an unknown purpose. Over the centuries this manuscript has eluded all attempts at deciphering its purpose and text. For example, Alan Turing who cracked The Enigma Code during World War Two, failed to glean any information as to what this text said. When I found a copy of this manuscript on the Internet, I felt an uncanny connection to it. The drawings within its pages feel reminiscent of many of my drawings from my older journals. Although the subject matter feels related to our world, it also has an otherworldly and timeless quality to it, as if peering into the mysteries of the universe. It’s this timeless aspect to this work, as well as the universality of it, that remains intriguing to me.

The manuscript is divided into five sections, and for years now, I have been in the process of transposing the illustrations found in the first “herbal” section of the manuscript into three-dimensional sculptures. These are herbal plants that don’t actually exist in nature.  The plant-like forms that are found within the pages of the manuscript are filled with oddly shaped rhizomes and roots, and parts of plants that are very strange with disproportionately shaped leaves or flowers. With this series I am bringing the unknown into the known, while also shedding light on the mysteries that have been with us since the late Middle Ages.


”7r”, 2017, 166 pieces of wood, linseed oil, earth, graphite and matte medium, 42” x 25” x 10”. Photographed at The Dorsky Museum, “New Folk” exhibit, 2020

What are you working on now?

Just yesterday I finished a new Voynich piece that feels different than the ones that came before it. I still have new forms to discover inspired by this manuscript. Each sculpture that I create must have something new in it for me to discover in order to sustain my interest. Over the years, I tend to work within a set of parameters that I’ve set for myself-and those parameters determine how long I work on each series. I could work on a specific series for a couple of months or years. My Voynich Manuscript series has been going on five years now and counting and I’m still inspired working with it.

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”50r”, 2021, 78 pieces of wood, pastel, linseed oil, earth and matte medium, 46” x 20” x 12”.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com