Interview and Photographs
by Diane Joy Schmidt
All the life forms on earth continuously absorb and release energy at the cellular level. Humankind first saw the power of these intricate forces of nature unleashed when scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Trinity, New Mexico. Sometimes it takes an artist to wake us from the mundane to see this miracle of existence constantly unfolding all around us. Many of the large scale metal sculptures in public spaces in New Mexico were made by such an artist, a force of nature unto herself, internationally known Albuquerque artist Evelyn Rosenberg.
A petite woman with a beauty that radiates from an internal confidence and with looks reminiscent of Barbara Streisand, Rosenberg makes art using plastic explosives. The technique, “detonography,” which she developed in the desert at Socorro’s NM Tech lab for explosives after meeting an Israeli explosives engineer, melds the force of the detonation with the principles of print-making to bring forth, in a thunderous micro-second, works of surprisingly delicate beauty and strength.
As she explained on ABC’s Nightline series “American Originals” a while back to Cokie Roberts, who acclaimed her work a celebration of genius, creativity and independence, she said, “The explosive is acting like a giant stamping press, and it’s stamping the metal into the mold. The metal forms over the mold, and gives it this three dimensional effect. Any object that’s laid on the top of the metal plate and between the explosive and the plate will transfer its image to the plate, so anything even as delicate as a feather will transfer its image onto the plate. That’s very magical.”
Now, in our interview, she discusses the fifty-year arc of her work, which has led to the enormous metal sculptures in Albuquerque in front of the Metro Courthouse, at the Sunport, at Valencia and Roswell university campuses, in Santa Fe at the planetarium, and at many other public spaces around the country and the world.
Approaching the studio doors, one feels about to enter a temple. The intimate self-portraits that hang in her home and spacious studio in the North Valley strongly emanate the power and intensity of this explosive process thru this most personal image of the female. They sparked a discussion of mythology, feminism, Judaism and the challenges of aging as a sculptor. (The conversation has been edited for brevity).
Link: Was blowing things up a logical progression from what you were doing?
ER: I was studying Comparative Religion at Hebrew University. I used to like to draw when I was a kid, so I started going to drawing classes, and then I said, ‘This is all so much better than sitting in the library!’ so I decided that I wanted to study art.
I went back to the U.S., got married, went to Columbia for a year, and then to RIT, Rochester Institute of Technology, where I was doing printmaking. This was during the Vietnam war. They were drafting all the doctors, and Gary got drafted. (see companion profile of neurologist Gary Rosenberg, MD). He had just finished his internship at Rochester, and he was sent to Sandia Base here, which was tremendously lucky. So, I went to UNM to study printmaking and I got a masters in lithography.
Link: Do you think that you would have been able to have the success that you have had, if you were starting out today?
ER: When I started out, they didn’t want to let me into the graduate program in lithography here, they told me, “You’d better take some economics and business courses because you’ll never get a job as a printmaker. You’ll probably have to work in a gallery.” You wouldn’t be able to say that today.
Link: So did you go home and cry?
ER: No, I just said, “I want to do it. I’m stronger than some of those skinny boys there.” Those (lithography) stones – you pick them up on a lift, and then you push them – but everything I do is heavy – twice a week I do weightlifting.
Evelyn explained that from New Mexico they went to Israel, where she taught art at the University of Haifa, and then to New York. While Gary finished his residency in neurology at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, she taught art at Montclair University in New Jersey. They liked New Mexico and when Gary was offered a position in the neurology department at the University of New Mexico with a lab and technician, they returned and have been here ever since, since about 1979.
Link: Does your detonography work have something to do with being Jewish?
ER: I did a series of 18 prints of the story of Joseph and his brothers, and Rabbi Paul Citrin wrote a commentary for it. It was sent in a traveling show to all the Jewish museums in the country. So I did pursue Jewish themes, I did paintings with Jewish themes, because I was interested in mythology, comparative religion, and biblical stories. But, the work that I’m doing now on commission (doesn’t), it has mythological content, [though it] probably reflects Jewish [themes].
I worked for two years as an artist in the schools and I made murals, that was a great National Endowment for the Arts program they don’t have anymore, and so I got excited about making big things, but then I went back to making prints. With the money I earned from that I bought a press, I was doing etchings.
Link: Then something changed?
ER: Gideon Sivan came to New Mexico in 1985. He was an explosives engineer who worked at the explosives center in Haifa, where he designed special tank armor for the Israeli army that exploded on contact. He came here to the EMRTC, the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech, on a sabbatical and he wanted to do something fun with a phenomenon known as the “Munroe effect.”
He had this idea you could make art using explosives but he needed an artist to work with. Through what you’d call Jewish geography, he heard there was a similarity between the way the things he was doing with the explosives looked and my etching plates. He came over one night, and we started talking. He asked if I wanted to blow something up, I said ‘Sure, sounds great!’ I started to work with him. After about three months he went back to Israel, but the head of the center was a very innovative guy from the Nitro-Nobel Institute in Sweden. He asked if I wanted to keep working on this? So I taught a class on the history of the technology of art, because it was an engineering school. It was a pretty interesting class. I taught for a couple of semesters while I was developing this process. Once I had the process developed, then I started to make pieces and I stopped teaching.
In her recently published book “Detonography, The Explosive Art of Evelyn Rosenberg” (University of New Mexico Press, 2013) Evelyn writes about that class, “I wanted them to understand that it was only the romanticism of the 19th century that had transformed the image of the artist into a kind of mad genius who works alone. [. . .] I started the class by asking the students to carve a stone with a stone. . .”
In addition to the explosion itself, is there a kind of alchemical process that happens?
Yes. I think it’s a very feminine technique because it’s like having a child. You have these messy, destructive, painful, horrible things happening, and then you get these beautiful delicate objects, I think these things, they look very delicate. They don’t look like they’ve been blown up. They’re refined. So it’s like life. (she gives a light, ironic laugh)
Link: Looking at the self-portraits that are here, which came first?
ER: The earliest is “Gemini”. The lion with wings came next. That was done as part of a four-part series which is now at the university campus in Roswell. Then this one here (hanging in the studio), “The Sorceress’s Dream,” I did about three years ago. The last one (on the outside wall), which has a religious theme, is called “The Goddess Hides Herself.” It’s the goddess posing as male gods, God the father, Buddha, until she can reveal herself in the universe.
Link: “The Sorceress’s Dream” seems the most daring somehow to me, the most powerful in the way that it’s not literal, it’s not obvious. Do you see that one as different?
ER: No. I’m repeating the same themes over and over again, these mythological themes, and the search for some kind of spiritual meaning outside of nontraditional religious forms. I consider myself very Jewish in the sense that both my kids had Jewish weddings. Even though they married non-Jews, they’re bringing up their children Jewish. Link: I see something different in “The Sorceress’s Dream.”
ER: I like this idea of disguise, hidden identities. She has a mask like a butterfly mask. L: Rabbi Gershon Winkler once said if you look at, the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” that in the early Aramaic, it was, ‘put no other face on my face, a deeper way of saying ‘don’t make a graven image of what I am.’ ER: He was very good, he was amazing, I still get his newsletters.
Link: Another thing about “The Sorceress’s Dream” – you’re not making yourself beautiful, there’s an aging issue. You’re looking at yourself in a different way then you did in the lioness picture. And you are wearing some sort of dress?
ER- it’s a sequined dress that I got from a thrift shop because I’m always looking for materials.
Link: Your power is different than in the lioness one, don’t you think there’s a change?
ER: I like the idea — I have not thought about it at all. That is true that the lioness is a much more sexual creature than this sorceress. “The Goddess Hides Herself” was a kind of comment on religion. The female principle has been suppressed by the male gods of the world, but the female principle is waiting to reemerge and to be the controlling factor in the world. If the world is to survive, I think, if the earth is going to survive, we’ve got to get rid of all those male suppressors of nature [side discussion of upcoming presidential election].
Link: So you are saying the explosives part is masculine, but the result is very feminine?
ER: No, no, it’s not masculine, I don’t see it as a masculine thing. I see it as the forces of nature, which can be terrible and devastating, but can also create a flower or a butterfly, or a piece of art.
Link: Now that you been an artist as long as you have, some fifty years —
ER: What I do is physically demanding, so that who knows, maybe (eventually) I’ll have to work with watercolors. But watercolors are the hardest thing of all because you can’t make mistakes. I assume that I will always continue to be an artist and that if I have to, I will have more assistants. Louise Nevelson worked into her 80s on very large sculptural pieces.
I worked with the last assistant for 12 years, and he’s now starting to go out on his own, he’s very good. I just got a new assistant six months ago. She just graduated from CNM as a certified welder, and she’s also good.
Link: You think somebody in their 60s could decide to become an artist? ER: You know Michaela Karni? She was a writer. Then she started painting, very late, just in the last five years or so. She wrote romance novels and some mysteries and then she just started painting. Now she’s really good, she works all day at it, and she’s very serious about her work. She’s in her mid-70s. One of the things that’s interesting is that poets and mathematicians bloom young, but artists get better with age. Titian got better in his 80s, he was doing great stuff. It’s a skill, maybe your inspiration is not as fresh, but your skill level increases.
Two of Rosenberg’s works, including the lioness with wings, titled as “Ezekiel’s Vision,” will be in a special exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum of Art, “Jews in Twentieth Century Albuquerque: Building Community Along the Rio Grande,” November 19 through April 2, 2017. View more at her website www.evelynrosenberg.com, including photos of Rosenberg’s large scale public works with a map of their locations, films of her and her explosive technique, further explanation of it, and a link to her book.
This article was written with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation.