Woman of steel

Time is another country: It can make you think differently about your passions and pursuits, as Marcia Spivak has discovered.

“I loved art, but I didn’t have the confidence to pursue it when I was younger.”

And so this University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, with a degree in communications arts, set out on a related path, as a videographer and TV reporter. A friend and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., brought her east more than 30 years ago. She put down roots in Wilton (“I love this area. It’s so gorgeous”); married (husband Burton is now an adjunct professor of history at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield); and had a son (Ben, now in college).

“Once I did all the things that I felt I should be doing, I found the purpose to do what I also really wanted to do.”

Or maybe things just occur in their own time. As Spivak says, “It happens when it happens.”

In any event, lovers of equestrian art are the richer for it. Indeed, to see her work last fall in ArtsWestchester’s “A Horse, Of Course” exhibit was to be electrified by sculpture that evokes both Leonardo’s epic equine statuary and the poignant life-size puppets in the play “War Horse.”

Part of what makes Spivak’s sculpture – which she began making 16 years ago – so unusual and moving is the way it’s constructed, with bands of carbon or stainless steel that give it a haunting, dynamic musculoskeletal quality.

“I always sort of dabbled in art. A friend of mine did printmaking classes and said, ‘You’re going to love (working in metal).’… I’m in love with the medium and the process.”

Spivak often uses pieces of steel discarded by other artists as well as those found in junkyards in Stamford and Norwalk and recycling centers in Wilton and Essex. “Their negative space I work with as positive space.” Among the spectacular examples is the big commission she recently completed in six intense weeks for the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Horse. It’s 1,100 pounds of 12-gauge steel – 8 feet tall and 10 feet long – made of recycled material. The horse is called “Qianli Ma,” the ancient Chinese term for an able steed that can cover 1,000 li, or about 310 miles, in a day.

“Since that was a commission, they had very specific ideas of what they wanted. It was all about the temperament of the horse. It couldn’t be aggressive, but at the same time it couldn’t be shy.”

The result is a work that has the nobility of Renaissance equestrian statuary.

Whether Spivak is working on a commission like “Qianli Ma” or one of her own ideas, the process is the same. She begins in her Ridgefield studio with what might be described as ribbons of steel, which she cuts with a plasma cutter, or nibbler, then cold-rolls – sometimes in a vise if the pieces are small enough. She welds the pieces together and cleans the welds.

Does she have arms of steel to work with heavy metal?

“I don’t go to the gym anymore. I don’t know if I’m strong. I have a certain perseverance.”

Unlike some sculptors, Spivak doesn’t begin with a scale model.

“Once I’m into a work, I’ll photograph it, look at it on a digital screen and draw on it. … I use my small works as a jumping off point for larger works.” Spivak’s sculptures, most of which are sold, can range from a tabletop piece costing $475 to something like “Qianli Ma,” for which the casino paid $52,000.

“Regardless of the size … they have a majestic quality which commands your attention,” says Kathleen Reckling, gallery director at ArtsWestchester in White Plains. “They capture all that is elegant about the horse – its regal lines, athletic physique and quiet strength.”

Just as Spivak has always loved art, she loves horses, too.

“The first picture I have is of myself at age 3 with my grandfather on a horse.” She started riding lessons at age 6 and at 16 had her own horse. In college, she took a hiatus. But time has brought her full circle to her early loves.

She points to the equestrian work of such artists as Deborah Butterfield and Mary Frank.

“This is all I want to be doing. I feel so fortunate. The more I do it, the more I love to do it.”

Marcia Spivak will be participating in The Greenwich Arts Council’s Art to the Avenue in May. For more examples of her work, visit the C. Parker Gallery at 17 E. Putnam Ave. in Greenwich and marciaspivak.artspan.com. 

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