by arlene winkler
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.
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 sculptors intentional melding of imagination, engineering
With this in mind, Im looking forward to her opening at the Toe
River Arts Council. But when I get there, I cant 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 its 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 thats when I get it.
This is not an attempt to out-do nature, but a pursuit of the nature
Im so excited by my sudden insight, Im 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,Theyd know it was
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 cant 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 cant seem to resist the lure of the familiar.
On the other hand, Ive been in towns much smaller than Asheville,
where fine art is everywhere, and I know that its possible for
people to understand and enjoy it. Thats not to say that its
less good here, but its a lost opportunity for Asheville.
Ila is not convinced. I see pieces of craft here that I want to
own, because theyre works of art.
Im outraged. Are you saying theres 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 shes ready
The difference I see is not in the finished product but in where
its 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 wasnt 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 ]
on the other hand, begin with the materials and the potter or
weaver or wood carver then looks for an idea. But I believe theres
an artist lurking inside many crafters, and then its a matter
of intentions. Instead of saying, Im going to make a clay pitcher,
theyll say Im going to make art and the result is
an object I want to own.
Im 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 fathers 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 1960s, 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 Masters
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 wasnt doing and once again I was
being ignored. But this time it was different, this was for me. When
the time came for my Masters show, I told my advisors I didnt
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.
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
I can safely say it does not represent mans 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 werent closing, and
I had to get a job. I didnt make art again for fifteen years.
I know its hard to believe, but I became a CPA. Even then
my ability to visualize didnt desert me. I was able to see
how financial statements flowed into one another. The partners werent
impressed. All they wanted was billable hours. But I wasnt 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. Thats when I started to do art again. Even though I knew
who I was in my heart, I hadnt been able to call myself an artist
in a long time. Now thats who I am what I am every
She pauses. I can tell by the way her smile lights up her face, that
its not just because this makes her happy. Shes come back
to our original discussion and figured out the true nature of the question.
Its not about the difference, she explains, Its
about the quality of the attention.
I get it.
Summer in the Mountains ]
a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance.
Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the
world. But dont bother to GOOGLE her: theyre 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