Loren Eiferman: Drawing in Wood

By Etty Yaniv

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 the 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 eight hours passed as if it were 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 as a painter was an epiphany.

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 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.

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

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 1960s to the early 1990s. 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 wellbeing. 2010 therefore was a harrowing year for us.

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 wellbeing 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. The 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 CEOs 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. This was a way to get my anger channeled into something more creative.

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. 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. They 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. 

Dreams of Our Ancestors, 17″ x 21″ x 6″, clay with iron metal coating and rust patina, and pillow2011.

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

I truly believe that Mother Nature has the ability to heal this planet. One day, I was cleaning out my basement and found 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 the series Nature Will Heal for which I built plant-like forms where the “seeds and seedpods” are 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 a particularly 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 a strange wood flower, planted and growing from the earth.

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

What is the idea behind the 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, the manuscript was written in an unknown language, by an unknown author, for an unknown purpose. Over the centuries it has eluded all attempts at deciphering its purpose and text. When I found a copy of it on the internet, I felt an uncanny connection to it. The drawings within its pages feel reminiscent of many of my drawings from 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 the 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 into three-dimensional sculptures. These are 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, 42” x 25” x 10”, 166 pieces of wood, linseed oil, earth, graphite, and matte medium, 2017. 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. 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.

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

(Top image: The artist in her studio.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on April 26, 2021 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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