Escaping into charcoal: Artistic fire burns in UI graduate

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JULY 15, 2009 7:15 AM

Cream-colored paper covered in black oil paint spilled from artist Sylvia Schuster’s hands onto the barren floor of her temporary studio on North Linn Street.

“Well, that’s a good place for them,” she said, staring down. “I like working on the floor, anyway.”

She is showcasing a retrospective of her work — a collection of charcoal drawings — at West Bank, 229 S. Dubuque St., until Aug. 15.

“We had 1,000 people at the opening,” Schuster said about the June 15 première. “The bank manager said he’d never seen so many people in there.”

Covering the brown walls and the teller stations with what Schuster called her large heads, the artist’s extensive collection draws admirers even today.

“They look into your soul,” said one bank patron. “They make you think about your own head.”

Schuster’s studio houses the numerous works of art not featured in the bank. Framed figure drawings, skeletal sketches, and oil-painted and chalk heads in reds, silvers, and golds lean against the walls.

“Frames are a way of embalming art,” she said, gesturing toward a charcoal drawing of a foot. “[People] can’t feel it, can’t touch it.”

She has more than 9,000 pieces housed in climate-controlled warehouses in New York and Washington, D.C.

“That’s the problem with being prolific,” Schuster said and laughed lightly. “You have to edit — not all of my drawings are good drawings.”

What she terms her bad drawings are now being turned into collages.

“I suppose you could call it ‘recycling,’ ” she said. “But I don’t think of it that way.”

She layers various parts from oil-painted pieces, creating abstract heads.

“I cut them up, and then they work,” she said. “It’s the stage I’m in now — collaging.”

These stages are not unusual for the artist, whose career spans more than five decades. Working across many media — including oils, charcoal, chalk, and pen and ink — she says drawing is her main focus.

“No one draws anymore,” she said. “You have to make it a habit. You can’t teach [drawing] for 20 years and then just decide, ‘I’m going to start drawing again.’ It doesn’t work like that. You have to make it a habit.”

Schuster spent seven years studying etching and printmaking at the UI, from 1967 to 1974.

“[UI Professor Emeritus Mauricio] Lasansky called it the Spanish Empire of printmaking in Iowa City,” Schuster said. “I’d already gotten my master’s [from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Ind.], but I really wanted to be here.”

Although Schuster never spends more than a month in the Midwest — she divides her time among Iowa City, Washington, and New York — she enjoys returning the quieter rhythm of Iowa City when she can.

“I need to be at my warehouses,” she said. “It’s where I make most of my sales.”

Though Schuster’s artwork sells in greater numbers in the large cities, she’s found that this, her first solo show in Iowa City, is drawing a surprising number of buyers.

“Even in this decimated economy, I’m still selling,” she said. “It’s like an escape, my art.”

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