Even if we elect to get newsletters and other documents mailed electronically, our world is filled with papers — programs and brochures, maps, notes, menus, certificates of achievement, an article clipped for future reading, bookended with our birth and death certificates. These bits of papers, though they sometimes seem to clutter our lives, tell our stories, and Princeton-based artist Trudy Borenstein-Sugiura uses these in portraits that reveal a deeper perspective.
She began the series of collages two years ago, and it has already been exhibited in the Hamptons, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Brooklyn, and the Jewish Center of Princeton. Her newest exhibit, “You Are What You Were,” is on view at the Nassau Club through May 6.
Borenstein-Sugiura has enjoyed a successful career as a fine jewelry and tabletop objects designer. She worked for Cartier and David Yurman — her work is included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and her products, sold by Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, Barney’s, and the Museum of Modern Art, have been featured in Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and the New York Times.
It was while serving as executrix of her father’s estate (Max Borenstein died in 2011 at age 97) that Borenstein-Sugiura became aware that her mathematician father “never met a piece of paper he didn’t solve a problem on.” And he saved all these pieces of paper containing the calculations that today would likely be done on a computer.
“I kept a big pile of these papers because his handwriting, and these calculations, were beautiful,” says Borenstein-Sugiura. “They covered a span of time, including documents from World War II, and his whole life.” Some were yellowed and weathered.
“I inherited his natural facility for logic,” says the daughter, who also loves solving problems. “One day during a snow storm I decided to use those papers.” Soon she created her father’s portrait, “In His Own Words,” using his college transcript for his hair.
As much as she can, Borenstein-Sugiura uses original documents, not photocopies. Looking at the portraits from a distance and squinting one can see only the visual features, the play of light and shadow. She starts with a photograph of her subject to develop the formal qualities of the portrait. In the case of her father, “I found a pocket-size picture of him as a math teacher and decided to render it in his own documents.” His eyes are made from accounting paper, and his suit and shirt are made from papers with his calculations. There is even a record of a family meeting.
Upon completing it, Borenstein-Sugiura realized “defining someone’s image through their documents could tell a story so much deeper than just a picture.”
Borenstein-Sugiura has long held an interest in words. In the 2007 “Dangerous Women 2” exhibition at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College, curated by Tricia Fagan, Borenstein-Sugiura created a graphite-on-paper portrait of the writer Dorothy Parker, rendering the details of a mirror frame with the writer’s words. “Words and the manipulation of language have always been important to me,” she wrote at the time. “Throughout my career as a goldsmith, words have been integrated into my pieces.”
She recounts how words were important in her family, as they competed to get in the last word or pun. Max Borenstein taught math in the Philadelphia school system before serving four years in Europe and returning, wounded. In “Hero,” Borenstein-Sugiura tells the story of her father as a soldier, his face made from his death certificate and his soldier’s hat made from the back-and-forth correspondence with the V.A. hospital on his injury in Berlin in 1945. His gold buttons are made from foil packaging Borenstein-Sugiura found among his documents. “Because he lived so long, there were so many aspects I could draw from,” she says.
After serving in the Army Borenstein worked for the IRS in the fraud division. He was also a senior table tennis champion, and “Champ” portrays him as such.
Borenstein-Sugiura’s mother, Beatrice (who died in 1991), was an artist — she attended the Philadelphia Museum School (which became the Philadelphia College of Art and now the University of the Arts). One of Beatrice’s sisters was an architect, and the other was Bucks County painter and printmaker Selma Bortner, who taught printmaking in the department of fine arts at Bucks County Community College for 23 years. Bortner’s works have been exhibited at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as well as Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery, and Borenstein-Sugiura has always had a close relationship with her.
Borenstein-Sugiura, who grew up in Levittown has been making art for as long as she can remember. “I always knew I was an artist, though I didn’t always knew the medium.” She went to Philadelphia College of Art and earned a bachelor’s of fine art from Tyler School of the Arts in 1978, with a focus on photography and metalsmithing.
“Becoming Apparent” shows Max and Bea during the years they raised their three children, with Bea’s own drawings on her face. “Nothing is sacred, I cut up my mother’s artwork,” says Borenstein-Sugiura, who began the series with her family because the needed documents were available to her. Recently she has worked on commission, making copies of birth certificates and passports so as not to destroy the originals of living persons.
After Borenstein-Sugiura’s mother died, her father moved to an independent living facility in Philadelphia. “He loved to grocery shop from sales brochures,” his daughter says. “He was an avid coupon cutter. I would take him shopping, and he’d find errors on the electronic cash register receipts.” He would send his daughter back into the store to rectify the error, which she did reluctantly, trying to explain to him that the 10 cents saved wasn’t worth her 20 minutes. “For a Limited Time” is his portrait made from sales brochures.
“This was of a moment,” she says. “My father’s generation left a paper trail. My generation has what we haven’t yet thrown out, and the younger generation is all electronic.”
Borenstein-Sugiura met her husband, Yasuo Sugiura, at a trade show in the 1980s, when he had an interior design business. They married three months later and raised two sons in Princeton. These days, Sugiura exports American products to Japan. “Witness to History” is his portrait made from a Japanese edition of “The Watchtower” that Jehovah Witness proselytizers left at their home.
“Yasuo loves history,” she says. His bowtie is made from origami paper. In another portrait, “O Moide (Remembrance),” Sugiura’s hat is made from a package of noodles and a picture of Mount Fuji. His moles are made from Japanese house plans.
A portrait of their son, Max, uses Jewish and Japanese papers to explore his heritage — a sushi menu, the box from Hanukkah candles, a Japanese newspaper, and a Yiddish dictionary. His ear is made from a map of the diaspora. Alex, their musician son, is portrayed with music paper for hair.
“Babe” is Selma Bortner, set against a background made from an engineering design book found at a rummage sale the two attended together. It also contains an article about Bortner and a brochure for a spa the two had considered going to.
“Irrational Exuberance” is a self-portrait the day before the 2016 presidential election, made from the book of that title by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, as well as brochures from the Met Breuer’s exhibit on Kerry James Marshall. “After the election I just wanted to look at art,” she says.
When asked how she makes the portraits look so life-like — even more so than the photographs she uses for reference material — she describes the process as a giant jigsaw puzzle. Born with a cataract, she has no depth perception but developed compensation skills, not only doing the fine work she does with jewelry but even doing a stint as a tennis coach. “I had to intellectualize it, watching the trajectory so I could imagine it in two dimensions. What’s inside my brain looks like putting together a visual puzzle.”
“Altered Statesman,” with gold on his cheeks, is a portrait of her friend Mike Blumenthal, who served who served as United States secretary of the treasury under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979.
She starts her process by drawing a map with the papers but does the important mental processing while in the shower, for example. “The most important thing in a portrait are the eyes and the mouth,” she says. “Once I get those, everything else will fall into place.”
So good is she at capturing the person’s essence, some of her clients, upon seeing the portrait they’ve commissioned, have cried.
You Are What You Were, Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, Princeton. Through May 6. To visit, call Chuck Hammond at 609-924-0580.