Linda Stein: sculptor of the 'warrior woman'.
Helen Hardacre: I would like to ask you to speak a bit about the background of your art. What were you creating before your current series of warrior women, called Knights?
Linda Stein: In my sculpture over the last 25 years I've had a desire to create an archetypal form to metaphorically defend me in battle. It goes back to dreams I had as a kid. I craved a figure of protection that would be impenetrable, powerful, aggressive. It would guard me against potential threats, and warn enemies not to dare harm me. It would confront my childhood foes, and say, in effect, stand back; don't come too close; you will be destroyed if you make a wrong move.
HH: How did this start? What forms did your art take to begin with?
LS: In the early 1980's, it took the form of an instrument, a tool, a weapon. While in residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, it began simply with an urgency to create a sculpture with extreme verticality. Gradually, it became important for me to hold this sculpture in my hand, indeed to strut about with it, as if it held magical powers, and conveyed those powers to me. Stories from Greek and Roman myth flooded my mind, and before long I was immersed in a series I later called Ceremonial Scepters. At times, I created them for dancers and choreographers and imagined that they belonged to Hermes, Daphne or Apollo. They became ritual objects accompanied by a capriccio which I wrote to explain how a long-lost tribe used these scepters during their rites of passage. Some of my gallery exhibitions were called Excavations, and next to each sculpture was a description of its ceremonial use and tribal site discovery. At every exhibit, at least one viewer would inquire where exactly I excavated these pieces.
HH: So a theme of protection emerged in your art with your series of ceremonial scepters in the 1980's. What happened after that?
LS: In the 1990's my need for protection found an outlet in the creation of my series Blades: sculptures hanging from wall and ceiling, fusing wood with machete blades that I dulled by hand. It was in this series that I introduced a sensual, curvilinear, warm element that invited the viewer to come hither and be charmed by the gentle sway of the form, before realizing that a potentially lethal weapon was transformed (as with sword-to-plowshare), to make it viewer-friendly. By the end of the 90's and early in 2000, the force and threat I put into the machete blade was softened further as I bent the hard steel of the blade, even corkscrewed it, replaced or covered it with wood, rock and found objects. Many of these sculptures included soundings: buttons, xylophones, and mbira parts that could be played by the viewer. The shape of the machete remained, but it became less obvious and more subtle. But I had to know it was still there for me just in case.
HH: So, you developed two series on protection from 1980 to around 2000. What impact did 9/11 have on you?
LS: A great impact, both artistically and personally. I was with my staff in my Tribeca studio when the police came to evacuate us. We ran northward holding hands, looking behind our shoulders as clouds of white dust enveloped us. Why, I wondered, were they throwing furniture off the World Trade Towers? Oh, no. It's not furniture ... After that day, I didn't live downtown for eight months. My dreams changed. My waking thoughts were filled with images of tall buildings going poof. Following an unexpected surgery two months later, as I briefly fainted, as one does after rising too quickly from bed, I felt in my core that I was the World Trade Tower, neatly and softly falling straight down upon one knee, as I had seen the Tower fall quickly, without fanfare, upon itself. I stopped doing sculpture. It was as if I was holding my feelings in abeyance as I sorted out my recent experiences.
HH: When did you go back to your sculpture?
LS: It took a year. At first it seemed like I was continuing from where I left off. But that wasn't so, because my abstract work was gravitating toward the figurative. I didn't realize this at first. I didn't see the very gradual formation of a torso, the expansion of pelvis and hips, the introduction of breasts. The materials I used now had more of a feel of an archeological dig, of rubble from ruins, of the everyday objects of our civilization. The sculptural form I was now creating had become a Female Knight, a Warrior Woman with a combination of antithetical qualities: power / vulnerability, masculinity / femininity, warrior / peacemaker. But intellectually, there was something about these Knights that confused me. How could I create them as warriors when I felt they were symbols of pacifism? How could they be fighters in battle when they represented to me everything that cried out for peace? By scrambling expectations of the masculine, the strong, the fighter, I was attempting in my sculpture to ask questions, agitate, alarm, and arouse a visceral response in myself and in my viewers.
HH: How does your Knights series relate to other cultural symbols of protection?
LS: It was after three years of making my Knights that Wonder Woman came into my mind. This uber-female of my youth struck a chord in me and addressed the same issues I was unconsciously working with in my sculpture. I began rereading all of her comics and was enthralled once again with her contradictory attributes. I was captivated again with how each comic book began. Do you remember this? It always started with something like: With the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the strength of Hercules and the speed of Mercury, Wonder Woman arrives. Never before has the need for this hero been so great. Time beckons, and the Warrior Woman comes--to weave her spell and further the cause of peace, equality and security in a world that seems to be spiraling madly toward perpetual war. Later, I saw the anime "Princess Mononoke" and felt a similar connection to my sculpture. She is also a warrior woman--a girl, actually--but this time from Japanese comics and anime. She is fearless in protecting the environment.
HH: You have spoken of a dialogue with your sculptures. What do you mean by that?
LS: My Knights began a communication with me. I felt they assured me protection. They would watch, and wait, and prevent any attack. Both Wonder Woman and Princess Mononoke helped in my conversation with and my relation to my Knights. I felt by revisiting them I was better able to understand my reasons for making my sculpture.
HH: And then at some point you felt that Wonder Woman and Mononoke were too specific and representational, and, therefore, didn't tell the whole story of your Knights. Right?
LS: Exactly. My Knights were more abstract and archetypal. In my sculpture, I sought a more timeless symbol: one that referred to an archaic presence existing for centuries. I began researching for such a historical or religious figure, one that made generations feel protected and safe. I looked for one that promised salvation and deliverance from problems, a sense of morality, a role model. And soon I discovered Kannon. [Kannon is the Japanese name for the Buddhist Bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. The Bodhisattvas are sworn to delay their own salvation until all other beings have been saved. Like all Bodhisattvas, Kannon has theoretically transcended sex, but throughout East Asia is frequently represented as an androgynous or female savior, sometimes with many heads and arms that bear symbols and weapons.] I needed to understand my creative process and chose these three figures from tradition to help me do so.
HH: Your use of letters and calligraphy is very intriguing to me. Could you say more about this, please?
LS: Since childhood, I have loved calligraphy and writing. I even worked as a sign painter as a youngster. I owned a calligraphy business as an adult. This is another example of my fascination with contradictions. On the one hand I want my work to be timeless, abstract, ancient, archetypal; and at the same time I'm using specific, time-bound elements of twenty-first century everyday life, like coins, keys, license plates, hardware, and yes, calligraphy plates that I used in my business for engraved wedding invitations and announcements on copper, steel, zinc, magnesium and brass.
HH: There is an enigmatic quality to your having embedded words, both in hard metal and in reverse.
LS: Well, first, you probably know that printing plates must be in reverse, so that when they are pressed onto the paper they will appear correctly. And, second, yes, I like that non-specificity and semi-legibility. I've called many of my sculptures "Glyphs," because it brings to mind an ancient writing system. It would ruin it for me if the words were complete and totally accessible.
HH: In looking at your sculpture, I see exquisite writing but cannot easily read it. In a way, it makes it more magical. It's a beautiful message, but it resists my attempt to read it.
LS: And, moreover, maybe these letter forms or words or glyphs that I love incorporating into my sculpture invoke very powerful questions: How do we talk with people of other religions and traditions? How do we talk to terrorists? How do we talk to ourselves?
HH: How do you see the relation between your art and being a lesbian?
LS: Perhaps if I were not gay, I would be too confined by the definitions and stereotypes of femininity to associate myself with Woman Warriors. I think the freedom I feel as a gay person allows me to make big, powerful women. As a lesbian, I feel that my potential is unlimited.
Helen Hardacre is professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard and the author of seven books on Japanese religions and popular culture.