Sole Survivor

Sue Eisler finds old shoe patterns in a Dumpster and makes them walk the artist's walk

Jan 15, 2003 at 4:00 am
If you look at St. Louis through a sculptor's eyes, especially one who works with found materials, you see a mother lode of resources. St. Louis is little more than a giant scrap heap, from the sculptor's perspective -- and that's a good thing.

The artist Sue Eisler discusses the materials she uses with references to the Dumpsters where she found them. She also alludes to the local-artist hotline and to who tipped her off to where the goods can be located.

Art dealer Jim Schmidt left a message on Eisler's machine telling her to check out the Dumpster near the Gasket and Sink Company, one block south of Washington Avenue, where Eisler used to have her studio in the 1709 Building -- that is, before the artists got kicked out for higher-income tenants.

"I went there, and my heart was just thumping. There were all sorts of gaskets and stuff," Eisler says, standing over a floor sculpture that includes dozens of gaskets, which stand out like discs between vertebrae.

The Dumpster near the Leather Trades Building is a source of goodies, Eisler says. But where she really struck gold was near the 1709 Building, when its upper floors were being cleared for rehabbing.

St. Louis was once known for being "first in booze, first in shoes and last in the American League." Many of those new deluxe rehab condos downtown were shoe factories, and the upper floors of the 1709 building held the last remnants of the city's industrial zenith.

Eisler filled the trunk of her car with thousands of shoe templates. To the rehabbers, they were garbage, but Eisler says, "I knew. I really knew."

What Eisler knew, or came to know, is on display at two galleries: the University of Missouri-St Louis' Gallery 210, in an exhibition opening Thursday, January 23; and the William Shearburn Gallery, opening Saturday, January 25.

For the last two years Eisler has been living with these patterns, and a visit to her home in South City -- where she moved after leaving the 1709 -- is like a visit to a vast scientific laboratory where life-forms are mutating, taking new and profound shapes on an hourly basis. Eisler is an artist who will construct a piece, then leave it alone and let time pass. Then -- quite often in the deepest hours of the night -- she wakes up and finds the new element that the work needs.

Eisler's been working this way for close to 30 years. Terry Suhre, Gallery 210's director, thinks of her as an exemplary artist: "Sue still addresses basic issues about being an artist. Look, this is 30 years of work that still maintains its integrity." For Suhre, who says he's in the business of training "little artists," Eisler's an example of one who has "always done hard work."

In her home, with wall and floor sculptures in various stages of transformation around her, Eisler talks about the hard work she's done. "If anything comes of it," she sighs, "fine."

Eisler's hair is long and striking with its various shades of white and gray, even a few hints of blond. She appears physically strong -- a result of all those years of hauling heavy objects out of alleys and Dumpsters back to her studio. She's also a bit shy, and she admits that she's not the most social of persons, but Eisler warms to you and talks with great exuberance, wide-eyed about the business of making. "I feel so fortunate to be able to make things," she says, "I really do.

"That's all that you can expect of it," she continues, moving to discuss the business of art. "How much effort can you put into promoting your work?" Eisler mentions a friend -- a fellow sculptor -- and a time when his ambitions drove him to take a trailer full of new work from St. Louis to New York every six months: "I didn't have the energy to do that. I don't know what it got him in the end, either.

"I've been in a good position here in St. Louis. I've gotten significant recognition, good reviews. I've been in a position where something else might have happened at that other level, but it didn't. How much more do you do, or what else do you do?"

Eisler's work hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum. Emily Pulitzer and Adam Aronson, two of St. Louis' most distinguished collectors, own her work. That Eisler has never been the new big thing in New York, she understands, is more about the dictates of fashion than about the art she continues to produce.

Lots of artists talk about how the work itself is the reward, how those hours in the studio are transcendent and that the rest -- fame, an exhibition record, big commissions -- is just gravy.

Eisler is one of the few artists who says such things and you believe her. She's persisted at the activity for many years, survived neglect and maintained her integrity, and she hasn't cracked up. That alone is a description of a successful artist, but Eisler has also been true to the groundwork of making.

It's never easy. Eisler gathered up all those shoe templates, knew that in the materials she'd find new directions. That was in 2000.

"If I was not so intrigued by these materials," Eisler says, "if that was not there, there'd be no point. I have to rely on that and go."

Then economic factors pushed her out of the 1709 and into her South City home. As can happen to an artist at any point in his or her career, Eisler's feeling of intrigue began to wane.

"I was so discouraged after I moved [from the 1709]" she recalls, "and not long after, 9/11 happened. After 9/11: Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why do this? I got very discouraged. I talked to Pat Schuchard [artist and director of Washington University's painting program], and I said, 'Pat, I've lost it. I don't have that sense of interest, intrigue, thrill. Whatever it is.' It was gone.

"I thought, 'I'm really forcing this work, forcing and forcing and forcing it.' Then I got beyond that."

Eisler pauses for a brief moment of contemplation: "It was tough work. But this feels good." She beams.

The earliest work in Eisler's new series maintains the integrity of the shoe shape, which may sound mundane, if not absurd, but in the two-dimensional works that are to be exhibited at the Shearburn Gallery, the results are dazzling. The shoe patterns are configured into forms in which the repetition of shape and color have a compelling power: lyrical, exuberant, overflowing.

"Her work is about taking a shape," says Shearburn, who has been visiting Eisler's studio every three or four months since this series began, "using the shape and manipulating it over and over. It becomes a variation on a theme."

From flat, framed pieces, Eisler began to manipulate the shoe patterns sculpturally and to hang them on the wall. She began to add latex paint, dried color pigments, Elmer's Glue, water, ink washes, "a little gravel occasionally," she says as she stands beside these strange, organic forms, which are colorful in the way bizarre fungi are as they blaze in the Missouri woodlands.

A series of smaller works stand in Plexiglas frames so that both sides of the pieces can be seen. The two sides are wildly distinctive, studies in light and dark, in texture and color.

Eisler believes she still has a long way to go investigating these materials: "My thinking is, I want to make more three-dimensional forms. That's the direction I'm moving." The latest works are the most sculptural, off the wall -- literally -- and moving further from the shoe pattern itself.

Eisler's glad she's kept at it and that she keeps pushing: "You have to, because what comes out of that is the work that feels the way it should feel. You have to do that. You have to be in the studio. You have to make those things, no matter how bad they seem or how bad they are. You have to do that.

"For me, so much comes out of the materials I'm working with. The majority of the work flows. There's not this intellectual decision-making process. Most of the work is that way. Once I get into something, it just rolls."