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Tidepools of texture and color

Artist turns pipe cleaners into flowing sculptures

Thursday, February 9, 2012
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“I figure it out as I go along. It’s like doodling with a pencil. They are different every time. Sometimes I have dreams that tell me how to make things, with complete instructions,” says artist Ginger Ertz of her work with “chenille stems,” also known as pipe cleaners.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
“I figure it out as I go along. It’s like doodling with a pencil. They are different every time. Sometimes I have dreams that tell me how to make things, with complete instructions,” says artist Ginger Ertz of her work with “chenille stems,” also known as pipe cleaners.

When Ginger Ertz plays with pipe cleaners, colorful sea creatures emerge from her hands. Organic and abstract, they look like sea shells, coral and jellyfish. Clinging together, they form mesmerizing tidepools of texture and color.

For the past nine years, the Schenectady artist has twisted, braided and knotted thousands and thousands of fuzzy pipe cleaners into imaginative sculptures. Last year, Ertz had her first Capital Region solo show at Schenectady High School’s Butzel Gallery, and in 2010 her sculptures appeared in the prestigious Mohawk-Hudson Regional exhibit at The Hyde Collection.

“They look like things that would live in or near the water. I love looking at water,” she said during a chat in her downtown Schenectady studio.

Through her storefront window on Liberty Street, there’s a stunning view of Schenectady City Hall, and on the studio floor sunlight splashes onto her latest project, “Babbling Brook,” a 7-foot-long river made of pipe cleaners.

“Babbling Brook” is not a single form, but 130 individual pieces that flow together. Waves and plumes of blue, white and lavender studded with light-catching beads are interrupted by gray, rock-like forms.

Metaphor for life

“It’s about the movement of water,” said Ertz. “The river is also a metaphor for life, how it changes over time.”

Bending down, she picked up one of the “rocks” and tossed it in the air, above her billowy and distinctive crown of wavy hair.

“They are hollow but hearty,” Ertz said. “You could drop them off a building.”

A few weeks ago, “Babbling Brook” left the studio for her current solo show at the Lake George Arts Project.

“Ginger’s work transports me to a new place,” said Laura von Rosk, director of the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project. “It’s not only skill and talent, but attitude.”

This winter and spring, Ertz is riding her own wave of accomplishment, with not only the solo show, but two group exhibits and a two-person show happening at the same time.

At MASS MoCA’s Kidspace, she’s one of six artists in “Under the Sea,” an exhibit that explores the ocean and its ecology. That show opened in October and runs through May 28.

“People are amazed that it’s made of pipe cleaners,” said Laura Thompson, director of exhibitions and education at Kidspace. “It’s hugely popular.”

Ertz’s four pieces in “Allscape,” which runs through April 1 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, are about the destructive power of water.

One of the pieces, “We Used to Call It Riverside Park,” was inspired by the flooding of the Mohawk River in Ertz’s Stockade neighborhood. “The trees looked like they were in the middle of the river,” she said.

“I find Ginger’s use of materials to be most interesting,” said Alana Akacki, ACCR’s exhibits manager. “It shows that art can be very accessible.”

Ertz and husband Charles Steckler just opened a show at Vantage Gallery in downtown Glens Falls. A collaborative project, “Take Our Picture, Five Cents,” is a collection of 217 photographs of Ertz and Steckler, many of them snapped by random strangers.

Ertz and Steckler, an artist and theater professor at Union College, have been sharing the Liberty Street studio since 2009, when Ertz was awarded a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

In the studio, her process is both intentional and intuitive. She wraps, weaves, braids, coils and sometimes knits the pipe cleaners, which in the art world are called “chenille stems.” There is never glue or adhesive, only some hand stitchery.

Adding material

Recently, she’s been adding bumpy, rubbery shelf liner to some pieces. Fabric, old blankets, cheesecloth, steel wool, even fur from a friend’s poodle have also found their way into her sculptures.

“I figure it out as I go along. It’s like doodling with a pencil. They are different every time,” Ertz said. “Sometimes I have dreams that tell me how to make things, with complete instructions.”

The organic forms often appear after studying prints of simple life forms by Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist in the early 1900s.

Manipulating the wire-and-polyester stems is meditative, she says, but tough on the body.

“My hands are all cut up,” she said. “It’s such an intense process.”

Remember the lacy, white pipe-cleaner chandelier that hung at Albany International Airport and then in the lobby at Proctors? Ertz worked a year on that project and used 10,000 pipe cleaners.

For the MASS MoCA show, it took her five months to build “Slick,” an ominous 8-foot-long oil spill.

“She really made it for the space,” said Thompson. “It’s allowing us to have a good dialogue with the kids.”

Ertz grew up in Bradford, an oil town in northwest Pennsylvania. The granddaughter of a tailor, she started sewing before she was a teen, and by the time she was in high school, she was making most of her clothes.

“I had a new outfit every week,” she said.

She graduated from college with a philosophy degree, then earned a master’s in library science. For 25 years, she worked as a librarian, and over the years, she worked as a costume designer, sometimes paid and sometimes volunteer, for theater and dance groups in Philadelphia.

“But the artist in me was getting bigger,” she said.

After years of drawing and painting, she went back to college to study art, and in 2001, at age 50, she received an MFA from Vermont’s Johnson State College and Vermont Studio Center.

Ten years ago, she left a job as an art educator in Vermont for a similar job at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.

Ertz still teaches children at the Tang, and it was there that she discovered pipe cleaners while working with some Girl Scouts.

“My hands fell in love with the material,” she said.

Initial uncertainty

At first, she was uncertain about the medium and its colors.

“It scared me,” she said. “It’s just too pretty.”

At Lake George Arts Project, Von Rosk sees Ertz’s sculptures as “beautiful,” not “pretty,” adding that “it is very serious business to pursue what gives you joy. The fact that Ginger has committed herself to ’make what she makes’ is what gives the work its power.”

For Ertz, the feeling of uncertainty about her work has vanished.

“It makes people happy,” she said. “It’s all about accepting life where you are.”

 
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