Seeing Things From a Different Angle
I went to Europe just on a lark. I cashed in my plane ticket for $200 and went to Munich. That whole winter I lived on $200, mostly by eating potatoes. I went to Paris, then came back to Iowa (and got into) the art department at the University of Iowa.
How did you two meet?
Nancy: About mid-year (1963), Mel came into our school and eventually, he started nagging me that I should take art history courses so I could get a degree. So I took the art history courses. And as soon as I got a degree, he started nagging me that I should get a job. I sent off my résumé to about 50 places and got a job at Connecticut College. And then he started nagging me about getting married.
Mel: I wouldn’t call it “nagging.”
What about your teaching careers?
Nancy: I taught at MSU and then at LCC, and now I teach, most happily of all, private lessons. I teach drawing and painting, and modern sculpture. I have age 8 to 80, and I didn’t know it would work until I tried it, and the students seem to like it. A lot of the hang-ups that college students have these students don’t have.
Mel: I taught at MSU from 1964 until 1991. Mostly sculpting, but some drawing, too.
How do you go about selling your work?
Nancy: I have gotten a lot of commissions. I tended to get one commission, then another came. We had two small kids, and I was teaching, and so the commissions were never overwhelming. I don’t think I ever had more than one or two at a time and it was just fortuitous the sequence (in which) they happened.
Mel: She was especially good at portraits, and so she got a number of those (commissions) through the university. I won the commission for the human services building on Cedar Street. A lot of it was word of mouth. Private individuals have commissioned me fairly frequently.
What material(s) do you work with?
Nancy: Clay to bronze or clay to concrete. If I could afford it, I’d do bronze. Concrete is amazingly durable, and I can make it look like bronze, so people really cannot tell the difference. Bronze is very hard and durable which is like the antithesis of clay… which I use in a very, very soft state. It literally will keep your fingerprints on the surface, and there’s something about that that I love — the idea of leaving an impression of your very thumb that will be transferred in something permanent.
Mel: (Since) I started in engineering in Iowa and then had a little bit of engineering in the army, I worked with large steel for a long, long. The Wharton Center piece was the biggest I’ve done, but there are a number that were made out of steel that I welded everything I could. All the way from very small works to very large pieces. (Then) I came down with emphysema and had to get out of the welding business.
Nancy: While (he) was teaching, he spent two years searching for a new medium. He was searching for something else to do. He came to clay because he had given the students an assignment of pressing objects into clay.
Do you have a philosophy about sculpting, or art in general?
Mel: You look for a lot of different ways to do something, and then you find the best way. I found that in sculpture, ‘finding the best’ is the wrong attitude. Finding a lot of ways was the most important. Back here, I ended up making twenty or thirty ideas out of one piece. And I still do that today.
Nancy: We have a bias that the first thing you make is the best. But hardly ever do you keep in trying to extend on the idea.
Mel: There’s a real advantage in coming up with three or four or five ideas before you even start the first one. Because if you just make the first one, that becomes so precious that you don’t want to go any further.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Mel: When I go from the house to my studio, which is in the barn, I can find ideas as I go along. People never look down, they look out. I keep looking down, especially since there’s something exciting down there and I find all kinds of stuff down there. Especially, I have found weeds (laughs). I realized that they are fantastic.
Nancy: I brought in all of these dead sunflowers recently. And of course, if you say ‘sunflower,’ people think of Van Gough and something really beautiful. Well, the dead sunflowers are incredibly interesting. You can leave out a whole lot of possibilities if you insist on the conventional ideas of what is aesthetic. I suddenly realized there are all sorts of things that people consider to be ugly there are, in fact, beautiful.
How do you price your work?
Mel: The first thing I ever sold in my life, somebody said, ‘I want that. How much do you want for that?’ And I said, ‘I want fifty-nine dollars.’ And he took it and never asked me why I came up with that price. It was the cost of a particular tool I needed to cut steel. (Now) I lose money on the first couple (of pieces) that I make, then I start making money (on similar pieces) and I make enough so that it pays for all the work that doesn’t sell.
Nancy: I worked with a castor. He has his own formula for how much (his work) should cost. I take his price and try to pay myself double what I pay my castor. (That way) I can say to people, ‘a life-size little girl by the age of eight, is $18,000.’
Can anyone make a living just being an sculptor?
Mel: It’s hard. It really is. We’ve been at it for years. When you look back, we didn’t do that much, but we did a lot.
Nancy: We had jobs, we taught, and that was our livelihood. When we graduated, we figured there were maybe 50 artists in the whole country living on just what they made. That was how few. Now it’s probably 1,000. But even then, they’re hot today and they’re gone tomorrow. So it doesn’t last long.
Mel & Nancy Leiserowitz
Resume, work history:
Years as a sculptor: 45+ years each
Years in Lansing: 45
Mel – Bachelor of Arts, University of Iowa, 1948; Master of Arts, University of Iowa 1964; taught at Michigan State University from 1964 to 1991.
Nancy – MacMurray College for Women, Jacksonville, IL B.A. English 1958;
1960-62 Kokoschka School, Salzburg, Austria: studied sculpture with Giacomo
Manzu; Akademie der Bildende Kunst, Munich, Germany
Apprenticed to sculptor, Meier-Denninghoff, Paris, France.
1962-64 University of Iowa, graduated with M.F.A. in sculpture
1965-1970 Taught drawing and design at Michigan State University
1974-1978 Taught drawing and sculpture at Lansing Community College
Family: two adult children
Community involvement: they donate art to charitable causes. Nancy helped start Hospice of Lansing