What’s the difference between an artist and an artisan? Many of us would argue that the line is blurry and malleable. But for Vanessa Hoheb, who has been working with sculpture nearly all her life, the distinction is clear. Only recently has she begun to feel that it’s appropriate to call herself an artist — the person she defines as the “idea generator” of an artwork. And yet, she has enjoyed a career making art that many would envy. “My role has always been to help artists realize their work as a skilled technician,” she says. “It’s a role I’ve taken on with great joy and pride.”
Hoheb, who has lived in New Paltz for the past 17 years, grew up in New York City. From an early age she spent a great deal of time in the sculpture studio run by her father, stonecarver Bruce Hoheb, hanging out with legends of the art world like Jasper Johns, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Willem de Kooning. “I was not starstruck,” she recalls. “It was always the work. We put in 12-hour days.”
Vanessa began her own formal apprenticeship right out of high school, at the age of 16. She learned how to enlarge sculptors’ work from a maquette, to make molds and casts, to restore damaged pieces. The life of an artisan is multidisciplinary, she says, and also requires a particular kind of professional discipline: the ability to “shut up and listen.” Apprentices in such a studio setting who can’t resist the urge to try to “improve” on the artist’s vision “have to find another game,” Hoheb insists. “We’re always behind the scenes. It’s our job to be invisible. At its best, our work is seamless.”
In New York City, the “center of the universe” for sculptors, Hoheb always felt that there was “deep respect for artisans, craftsmen and materials handlers…. Artists have employed bazillions of artisans and assistants to get their work up into space.” She benefited from the advice that her father received from Jacques Lipchitz, the famed Cubist sculptor who had been Bruce’s mentor during his years at the Art Students League: “If you’re disciplined enough to be an artisan, that opens up the whole world to you. You’re working in the allied trades; you’re exposed to art, to opportunities. You can do your own work in stolen moments. It was very good advice,” she says. “I can go around the world with just my spatula in my hand and the skills my father taught me.”
Those skills were put to the test early on, when Hoheb Studios’ reputation for perfectionism led to a five-year commission from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for father and daughter to reproduce priceless artworks in glass, ceramics, gold, silver, ivory and wood from its collection. Vanessa was appointed senior moldmaker. You know that adorable blue Egyptian hippo figurine, nicknamed William, who’s the mascot of the Met’s gift catalog? Guess who made precise reproductions of William available to the general public. “That was such a magical time,” Vanessa says.
A year before the blockbuster “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition came to the Met, Bruce Hoheb was sent to Cairo for several months to make reproductions, under armed guard, of some of the most cherished cultural artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization. So he drafted Vanessa to take over a couple of the classes that he taught at the Pratt Institute. Some of the students were no younger than herself, and she ended up marrying one of them. She taught moldmaking and casting at Pratt for five years. “They were asking me questions like, ‘How do I cast Jell-O?’” she recalls.
But the greatest “thrill of my life” was yet to come: In 1984, in preparation for the centenary of the Statue of Liberty, Hoheb Studios was approached to make the molds and casts to repair the corrosion that sea air had inflicted on folds in the statue’s nose, eyes and hair. She calls New York Harbor “the toughest environment you can put a piece of metal in.” Vanessa was put in charge of the five-member team, and spent a week “300 feet in the air on a scaffold,” making negative molds from a flexible silicone molding compound. “I was up there with just the birds. One day I looked down and saw the Goodyear blimp passing underneath me. The people in the gondola were waving up at me.”
There was more to the job once she came down to Earth: making plaster positive casts from the molds and painstakingly resculpting tiny blemishes. Then another round of molds was made from these, into which a team of coppersmiths had to hammer new copper patches. These in turn needed to be chemically “weathered” to match Ms. Liberty’s green patina. Through it all, Hoheb says, “I felt a connectedness to history. I thought of all those immigrants who came to America — the feeling they had when they saw that sculpture.”
So it seems very appropriate that the torch of the Statue of Liberty, as rendered by Woodstock artist Mary Frank, was used, along with the word “Truth,” as a poster logo for last year’s Women’s March on Washington. Feeling “flattened and devastated” by the 2016 election, Hoheb got involved in a “nationwide collective” called We Make America as well as the NPCD19 group, a local chapter of the political organization Indivisible. She has been spending a lot of time lately setting up tables at rallies and marches and library fairs and farmers’ markets, registering people to vote and selling buttons with Frank’s Truth/torch design for $3 apiece. Already they have raised more than $10,000 for Planned Parenthood offices in the mid-Hudson. In collaboration with other artists, “We’re utilizing our individual and collective skills to work at the local level,” Hoheb says.
Meanwhile, the artisan work continues, but it’s taking a new form that’s forcing her to try on the label of “artist” after all. After living, working and raising their son Dana in Sydney, Australia for ten years, Vanessa and her husband, David Kjolner, moved to the Hudson Valley in 2000. She spent the next 16 years working at the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry, and in the process became obsessed with an original project in her “stolen moments”: the American Artists’ Hand Archive.
It started with a bronze cast of one of her father’s hands that became more meaningful to her after Bruce’s death in 1997. “I kept staring at this massive, arthritic stonecarver’s hand on my mantle — a hand I knew so well,” she recalls. And she began to think about capturing images of the hands of other contemporary artists for posterity in the same manner. “I’ve spent all my life surrounded by incredible artists as they made iconic works. I was always fascinated by their hands — these agents of creativity. Their hands bear witness to the materials they used.”
Vanessa quickly found that many of her contacts in the art world were willing to participate in the project. “They trust me,” she says — especially once they know that her intent is to keep all the hand sculptures together as an archive, “a living document, to be presented as a group.” Already she has 20 pairs of them completed, including such luminaries as Chuck Close, Mary Frank, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Maya Lin, Judy Pfaff, Martin Puryear, Ursula Von Rydingsvard and Kiki Smith, with half a dozen more in progress. Each hand has its own personality, its own history of chipped nails and deep lines, calluses and scars. The collection is scheduled to be the inaugural exhibition for Marist College’s “splendid” new art gallery, opening in the fall of 2019.
Though being an artisan has always been a matter of pride for Vanessa Hoheb, “People are referring to me now as an artist, because I came up with the idea.” No need to worry about her getting too carried away with her new role, however: “My Dad’s always sitting on my shoulders, telling me, ‘You missed a spot.’”