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This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 2, 1999.

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In the Galleries: Erica Stanga

Sometime around 300 B.C., the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu

(best remembered for wondering if he was a man who dreamt he was a

butterfly, or — on waking — if he was actually a butterfly

now dreaming it was a man) reflected on life’s "strange and monstrous

transformations," concluding that "division is the same as

creation; creation is the same as destruction." Down through the

years this idea of transformation — with all its implied possibilities

— continued to captivate great thinkers and artists alike. Today,

more than 2,000 years later, artist Erica Stanga embraces the power

of change in her meticulously rendered works of bronze, glass, and

handmade paper.

At first glance, many of Stanga’s sculptures are reassuringly familiar,

with simple, often organic, shapes. Her works draw on nature and everyday

household objects for inspiration. Upon closer examination, however,

a peculiar twist in composition, or an unexpected juxtaposition of

elements suddenly adds a whole new dimension to the work. On close

inspection, the "ice cream" topping her pristine white glass

ice cream cone sculpture (aptly titled "I.Scream"), for example,

turns out to be a hornet’s nest. Or she can effectively turn the tables

on traditional associations, casting a cluster of delicate origami

cranes in bronze and adding a chain to create a miniature medieval

mace.

"Intimacy and Metamorphosis," a solo exhibition featuring

the works of Stanga is on exhibit at the Arts Council of Princeton

through June 19. A reception with the artist will be Friday, June

11, from 6 to 8 p.m. Since Stanga chooses work to accommodate the

exhibition space, this show will feature several of her mixed-media

installations, including her graceful "Butterfly Screen,"

along with sculptural works in metal, glass, and handmade paper.

Stanga’s fascination with the dual nature of familiar objects, and

the artistic possibilities inherent in them, started early. She recalls

that as a child growing up in London, Canada (a university town in

western Ontario, about two hours from Toronto), she was "already

a really detailed person." Being a horse lover, she spent hours

trying to perfect her life drawings, meticulously detailing muscle

groups until she got them right. While still an adolescent, Stanga

discovered the Surrealists, among them Salvador Dali, and was immediately

attracted to the disorienting juxtaposition of familiar objects and

unfamiliar contexts.

Stanga, the oldest of two children, focused on music and English in

high school, but managed to take some art classes as well. She was

supported in her interests by her mother, a school teacher, and her

father, a computer administrator who recently discovered that his

real love is accounting — although she notes that she is considered

a little bit of the black sheep in an extended family of creative

hobbyists who never took their respective art forms to a more serious

level.

At 19, Stanga moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art.

During her first year there Stanga chose a foundry course as an elective.

"I fell in love instantly," she says. "It was what I had

been trying to say with the sculptural paintings that I had been doing

in high school. And this is such an ancient art. Essentially every

basic method used today was first developed over 3,000 years ago!"

The teacher for the foundry course, Claire Brunet, was to be a major

influence on Stanga.

While bronze casting remained a major focus for Stanga

during her four years at college, she soon discovered another medium

for which she had an equal affinity: paper. "It’s really my other

love," she says. Over the years people have questioned how she

can be equally passionate about two mediums as diverse as metal and

paper. "I’ve thought about this a lot. One theory I have is that

metal is shaped while playing with fire, paper emerges from water

— and both fire and water are very cleansing elements. I enjoy

those processes, of being cleansed and reborn, in both.

"There’s also something about the two mediums — they complement

each other so nicely. There’s that whole thing about empowering a

fragile object by casting it in metal. Paper, in its nature, is so

much more delicate than metal — but when I cast a paper shape

in metal, that shape takes on a new life, a new strength. To take

the concept of something that is very soft and gentle and to give

it this everlasting life in metal seems to be giving that object a

larger life."

The college paper-making instructor had introduced another strong

influence to Stanga’s art-making when she shared her recent experiences

exhibiting in Japan with the class. Stanga was immediately drawn to

both the culture and the art-making processes described. "There’s

something about the attention to detail, the process by which the

Japanese create their art that interests me. They have a different

sensibility than the western world about materials. Here in North

American, we’re such a throwaway culture that raw materials like well-made

paper, for example, aren’t valued as they are in Japan. I’m really

interested in the Japanese sensibility. I think that I could really

grow artistically and personally with that way of thinking."

At college, as she learned about other artists, her range of influences

expanded. The works of two women artists in particular — Kiki

Smith and Louise Bourgeois — continue to inspire her. "These

people really express that for me," says Stanga. "I find Smith’s

work disturbing, and at the same time intellectually challenging.

Her choice of materials is very similar to mine — the glass, the

metal, the paper, which is unusual. It’s like discovering someone

who speaks a similar language, which is exciting. Plus since her type

of work is becoming more popular, it helps me to remain confident

in my own choices."

"Bourgeois’s work is so very, very strong. Again, there’s an element

of a similar language. Also, I like that unsettling effect, that unexpected

twist that she includes in so much of her work. I really think you

need that balance in life — you need to see both the good and

the bad side of things."

After graduating in 1994, Stanga remained at the college for two years

with additional studies at the foundry and glass casting. "The

college had decided to close down its glass facilities," she says,

"and it was allowing people to use the facilities for free that

year. That’s how I got started in glass casting."

Early in 1997, Stanga spent a month’s residency at Claire Brunet’s

foundry in Lac Carre, Quebec, but increasingly felt her work was beginning

to stagnate. Brunet — who, herself, had apprenticed at the Johnson

Atelier 18 years earlier — suggested that Stanga consider applying

for an apprenticeship. "I took the 12-hour train ride down here,

had a look around, and thought, `Well, yeah! I could be here for a

while.’"

She began her apprenticeship at the Atelier in June, 1997, and found

herself jumping in with both feet. Apprentices at the Atelier work

four full days a week alongside master artisans, working on other

people’s work.

"It’s hard, but it’s so great," Stanga says. "It’s more

of the traditional way of apprenticing. You can come here, knowing

nothing, and they can teach you their technique of every aspect of

fine art foundry work — from modeling and casting, through patina

and installation." She adds that another very significant aspect

of apprenticing at the Atelier is that you have access to all the

facilities, tools, and "toys" after hours to use in your own

work.

Today, with almost two years completed (the suggested length of an

apprenticeship), Stanga looks back with some amazement at her time

in the program. "I’ve learned a lot about everything here,"

she says, "Everything — and not just about the metal. I had

never lived outside Canada before, so that’s been interesting."

She describes some of her initial culture shock, noting that the contrast

between the safety she had taken for granted in Toronto and the fear

she felt in the United States was the most difficult to adjust to.

"The guns in this country are really disturbing. I think that’s

the thing that has taken me the longest to get used to. In Canada

the guns and violence are not a part of everyday living, but here

it seems it is. I’ve never gotten used to it, I’m still scared of

it."

Even with these concerns, Stanga says that her two years

in Mercer County have been full ones. She made good friends, taught

at Artworks, experienced growth in her work and a blossoming of her

career as an artist. Her work has appeared in several exhibitions

in the area, and the current show at the Arts Council marks her second

solo show within the year. Her first solo show was at the Atelier’s

Extension Gallery in February, and her work is currently included

in the apprentice group show, "Afterhours," that continues

at Extension Gallery to July 1.

Another recent project is the massive two-door gate Stanga created

for the Broad Street entrance to Trenton’s Urban Word Cafe. The impressive

steel structure depicts a Trenton cityscape above the Delaware River

was "It feels so good to have it done," she says. "I feel

like I took a crash course in metal chasing all over again — but

it turned out so well. I’m really proud of it." A formal presentation

of the gate will be held at the cafe on Thursday, June 17.

In spite of all the positive growth she’s been experiencing, Stanga

has decided that, professionally, it’s time to move on.

"I could stay here my whole life, and still continue to learn

things," she says, "but I think it’s important to move around

to get different points of view. I think two years — the average

amount of time for an apprenticeship here — is long enough. Plus

this place is almost like a revolving door. People are constantly

coming back in to do different things."

Stanga will begin a three-year MFA program at Southern Illinois University

in Carbondale this August. "Three years is a long time," she

says, "but they have an excellent program for both glass and foundry

work." She anticipates that Southern Illinois will stimulate yet

another shift in her work — a possibility she welcomes. "I’m

very much influenced by my environment, by what’s going on around

me. I spent my first two months at the Atelier just absorbing everything

that was going on, and when I went back to doing my own work, all

those new influences were there. I expect that will happen in Illinois,

too." She also hopes to take advantage of the university’s exchange

program and spend some time studying ancient techniques in paper making

and metal work in Japan.

As she talks about her next life adventure, this young artist brims

with a quiet confidence. And why not? Her art has already shown her

that metamorphosis — even when strange and disturbing — is

something to be welcomed.

— Tricia Fagan

Erica Stanga, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon

Street, 609-924-8777. "Intimacy and Metamorphosis," a solo

exhibition. Reception is Friday, June 11, from 6 to 8 p.m., for the

show that continues to June 19. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday,

9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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