Western North Carolina Woman

ila r. seltzer
by arlene winkler

Ila R. Seltzer is a sculptor in the Toe River Valley, an area so dense in artists, creative and spiritual people, she claims, the energy just powers off the mountains. Since her arrival here four years ago, it has become abundantly clear she has landed in exactly the right place.

“Five Leaves” for instance, now hanging at the North Carolina Arboretum [see pages 20 and 21] is a marvelous example of her double whammy of inspiration and mountain power. The subtle curves and natural hues of the leaf shaped sculpture are so perfectly sited within the glass-enclosed apex of the high ceilinged atrium, it looks like the perfect ingredients just happened to be there. But make no mistake, this is no accident, but the sculptor’s intentional melding of imagination, engineering and balance.

With this in mind, I’m looking forward to her opening at the Toe River Arts Council. But when I get there, I can’t help wondering if anyone else here feels like Alice, after nibbling from the small side of the toadstool. Am I shrinking? Or is that evil-looking black lily really twenty times larger than life? I check my surroundings. The walls and ceiling appear to be room-sized, but there are huge leaves swaying above me in a rain forest of crystal and suspended glass balls that put me in mind of giant rain drops.

I know it’s not just the size of her work that evokes this response. Is it the colors? the playful verisimilitude? the implications of fecundity? Who cares? I surrender to the sheer gorgeousness of her vision; the hidden gemstone inside a calyx, the drooping crystal stamens, the endless rows of metallic stitches, like tiny footprints that lead the way to the next surprise – and the next. And that’s when I get it. This is not an attempt to out-do nature, but a pursuit of the nature of nature.

I’m so excited by my sudden insight, I’m crushed when a couple in front of a large wall piece refer to it as a quilt. What is their problem? This is no quilter, this is a sculptor who has worked in clay, metal and resins, whose images are consistent from one medium to the next.. “If you were producing your work in Miami or Cleveland or even Charlotte,” I grumble to Ila,“They’d know it was sculpture.”

“Frame of reference,” she says calmly. “This is a craft center we live in, out of a mountain tradition created by people who wanted comfort, and a belief that things should inherently be useful. You and I come out of a tradition that knows what fine art is.”

“And the structures,” I can’t help adding. “The artist is represented by a gallery, who gives them a one person show, people come and see it, it gets written up in a newspaper by an art critic, and as people learn about it they begin to collect it. But here, the gallery owners can’t seem to resist the lure of the familiar. On the other hand, I’ve been in towns much smaller than Asheville, where fine art is everywhere, and I know that it’s possible for people to understand and enjoy it. That’s not to say that it’s less good here, but it’s a lost opportunity for Asheville.”

Ila is not convinced. “I see pieces of craft here that I want to own, because they’re works of art.”

I’m outraged. “Are you saying there’s no difference between art and craft?”

But this is a woman of many parts, a flute prodigy who earned a music degree on a scholarship – before she went on to become a sculptor, a wife, a mother, a teacher, a meditator – and she’s ready for me.

“The difference I see is not in the finished product but in where it’s coming from. Art begins with the idea, and the artist looks for a medium to express it. Minimalism, for instance, reduced form and color to its most basic elements, but then the Conceptualists took it a step further, saying the idea was so important that once it was thought of, it wasn’t necessary to actualize the piece. The composer, John Cage, was an excellent example of both philosophies, he reduced music to silence and the random noise that occurred during the silence, but he wanted his listeners to be exquisitely aware of the present moment, which is what happens when we pay attention to silence.

[ Left: Detail, Kaleidoscope ]

“Crafts, on the other hand, begin with the materials – and the potter or weaver or wood carver then looks for an idea. But I believe there’s an artist lurking inside many crafters, and then it’s a matter of intentions. Instead of saying, I’m going to make a clay pitcher, they’ll say I’m going to make art – and the result is an object I want to own.”

I’m not at all sure I agree, but I admire her emotional distance, and I tell her I find it odd.

A tale of two passions.

“Growing up in a musical family meant that art was just a treat,” she explains. “Something I had been allowed to do since I was a very small child. Music was my father’s passion, and I was a child prodigy with a secret skill – I was able to visualize the shape of the music. When it was time for college, I was still a girl who wanted to please my father. This was the 1960’s, and even though I had won a full scholarship, as a woman, I never got any interest or encouragement from my professors. I hung in there and got my degree, but I knew in my heart that Leonard Bernstein was safe, that I would never outshine him as the first woman director of the New York Philharmonic. The good part is I was able to get on with my life. I went back to school and got a degree in art history and sculpture, and later on, a Master’s in sculpture.

“Looking back on that MA, I wish I had rented a studio instead. My instructors were only interested in people who were doing trendy work, which I certainly wasn’t doing – and once again I was being ignored. But this time it was different, this was for me. When the time came for my Master’s show, I told my advisors I didn’t want to hold it in the university gallery , which was sometimes open two hours a day, but only when there were enough volunteers. Instead, I asked for permission to hold it in an established underground gallery.

That was fine with them – as long as I picked them up and drove them to the gallery and back home again.

“On the day of my opening, I picked up the first one, and we found the other two getting drunk in a bar. But we had an agreement, and I drove them to the gallery. When they got there, they were absolutely amazed by my work because they had never seen it. They had never bothered to visit my studio.

“But what does this really mean?” one of the drunk ones finally asked.

“I can safely say it does not represent man’s inhumanity to man.” I replied quickly.

My real life was about to begin. I had passed my orals, showed in a legitimate gallery, and sold some of my work.
[ above: "Torch Ginger" ]

“I was on such a roll, I joined eight of my friends in opening a gallery. Then I badgered the director of a major Madison gallery until he came there to see my work, and he invited me to show with him. Then I got an agent, and sold some of my pieces to famous people, like Robin Zanders of Cheap Trick. At that point, my work was being reviewed in the Milwaukee mainstream newspapers. I was sure I was on my way. But then a massive recession hit, and galleries weren’t closing, and I had to get a job. I didn’t make art again for fifteen years.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but I became a CPA. Even then my ability to visualize didn’t desert me. I was able to “see” how financial statements flowed into one another. The partners weren‘t impressed. All they wanted was billable hours. But I wasn’t complaining. It got us back on our feet and my husband was able to get his business started. Eventually I was able to wind down, doing part-time accounting work. That’s when I started to do art again. Even though I knew who I was in my heart, I hadn’t been able to call myself an artist in a long time. Now that’s who I am – what I am – every day.”

She pauses. I can tell by the way her smile lights up her face, that it’s not just because this makes her happy. She’s come back to our original discussion and figured out the true nature of the question.

“It’s not about the difference,” she explains, “It’s about the quality of the attention.”

I get it.

[ Above: Summer in the Mountains ]

Arlene Winkler is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance. Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her: they’re all credited to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of four, and the author of three screenplays, she is dealing with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel under her own name.

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