[Alyson Kuhn] Patty Grazini researches noteworthy people from the past—the tallest girl of the 19th century, a series of quirky criminals—and brings them back to life as intricate paper sculptures. Her figures are usually between 12 and 18 in. tall, but for her most recent exhibition, The Life of the Giantess, the central figure topped the 7-ft. mark. We had a chance to ask Grazini where she gets her ideas—and her papers.
Patty Grazini loading her Elizabeth Lyska figure into a rented truck for the ride to Curtis Steiner’s gallery in Seattle. The sculpture travelled upright, sans her head, which is detachable. Photo: Tynan Kogane.
Elizabeth Lyska was born in Russia in 1877. She grew up (and up) to be 7 ft. 2 in. tall. She was also very pretty and equally charming—and she toured Europe to great acclaim. Patty Grazini became fascinated by Miss Lyska’s brief life (she died in 1896) and decided to build her 2012 exhibition around the giantess and a magnificent array of her cherished possessions, all made of paper.
Is the Elizabeth Lyska figure the largest piece you’ve ever made?
Oh, yes. By the time I added her headpiece and the base—which is wood, to stabilize the sculpture—she was 7 ft. 6 in. My guess is that the sculpture probably weighs 50 lbs. I made her torso from cardboard tubes made for pouring concrete forms. Each arm is a wrapping paper tube that I wrapped many more layers of paper around. And of course there is lots of detail work in the accessories she is wearing, especially her jewelry.
What do you know about the identity of Elizabeth’s Viennese suitor?
When Elizabeth visited Vienna in 1893, she was invited to Emperor Franz Joseph’s court in the Schönbrunn Palace. To everyone’s amusement, she awkwardly danced with the aristocratic gentlemen and attempted to smoke a cigar. She also met Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen (1860–1936), who was handsome, charming, and had a very promising military career. (He might have been one of the inspirations behind Baron Trotta’s character in Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March).
That evening, the baron fell madly in love with Elizabeth. A few days later he proposed to her, sending her a package containing a letter (which has been lost), the key to his private chamber in the Schönbrunn Palace, and an engagement ring. For one reason or another, Elizabeth’s uncle responded to the letter, asking the baron for more time to consider their decision.
That’s a great side story. Where did you find such intimate details?
For The Life of the Giantess, I had a great collaborator—my son, Tynan Kogane, who is a writer living in New York and working at a publishing company. When I asked him if he’d like to write the descriptions for the sculptures, he countered with an offer to research and invent detailed scenarios based on fact. I was able to find very little personal information about Elizabeth Lyska. I think Tynan’s fabricated narratives really make the show come alive.
So the story you just told me was made up by your son?
Yes! When you read the story that accompanies each piece, there’s no way you would sense that the description is not true—if I hadn’t just told you.
I love the story part. Can we hear something about Elizabeth’s gloves?
Of course. After many performances, Elizabeth was asked by the management to stand near the door and shake the hands of the exiting guests. To many, shaking Elizabeth’s enormous hand would be the highlight of their visit to the theater, and particularly in London, it became something equivalent to obtaining her autograph. She would often get stopped on the street and begged to shake strangers’ hands. Her uncle, not wanting her hands to get damaged or constantly dirtied, had gloves specially made for her from a tailor in Savile Row. Later that year, as a publicity stunt conceived of by the Royal Holborn Theatre, Elizabeth was driven inside of a cab, around Soho and Covent Garden, shaking people’s hands through the open window.
A headline in The New York Times on May 20, 1915, read: “Dyed Sparrows Yellow. Peddlers Arrested in Jersey Sold Fake Canaries.” Charles Herman and Julius Scherer were fined $5 each for peddling without a license.
Did your son also write embroidered narratives for the series of sculptures in your earlier show, 13 Criminals 1880–1915?
I’m sure he could have done a great job, but in this case, each sculpture was inspired by an actual article in The New York Times between 1885 and 1915. I spent hours researching The New York Times online and enjoyed the research portion of this work immensely. It helped me generate art that I feel is more authentic. I included copies of the original articles in the show.
Olive Brown, Spiritualist Swindler: The New York Times of November 19,1890, reported that Mrs. Brown (and her husband, Philander Brown) “secured through their peculiar doctrines and manifestations such control over Paul Hill, an aged man residing in Brooklyn Township, and formerly of Iowa, as to obtain from him nearly $3000.”
And what was your motivation for the series as a whole?
This was a fascinating time period, and I wanted to show it through crimes reported in The New York Times, focusing on New York City, committed by people who were, I think, desperate. This was a time of great wealth for some and great poverty for many. I chose 13 people to portray, each having committed a very different sort of crime.
Mary Molloy had a bustling shoplifting business. The New York Times of May 21, 1898, reported on “the wealthiest shoplifter ever arrested in Boston.” She was apprehended in the act and “sent to headquarters to be booked. There she was treated as an ordinary person, until her bustle was reached, when, with the aid of a knife, $2369 in new tens and twenties and books representing about $7000 in Newport and New York banks were found.”
What was your thinking behind giving the figures animal heads?
I had several reasons. I think people can relate to animals in a different way—when they look at a human face, they relate to themselves. For each sculpture, I chose an animal we associate with certain human traits, as a way to reveal more about the criminal and the crime. I think using animals added an element of mystery—I didn’t want a strictly “photographic” representation. Also, political cartoonists during the Victorian age often used the heads of animals in their cartoons, and I wanted to reference that journalistic tradition.
How long have you been making paper sculptures?
I’ve been working with paper for about eight years now. Before that, I made wearable art, so I worked mostly with fabric. My father is an upholsterer. I’ve always been drawn to paper, but wanted to achieve the look of fabric through using paper.
Can you give us an example of something you do to make paper clothing or accessories seem more fabric-like?
I pleat, fold and gather the paper, as when working in fabric. I’ve always used a wood-burning tool to burn the edges, and sometimes to distress the paper. This ages the paper and also creates tiny irregular notching.
Where do you look for papers for your work?
Basically, everywhere I go. I was recently in San Francisco for a weekend and went to Flax, where the incredible selection is almost overwhelming. And, of course, Flax is just around the corner from Bell’occhio. I also went to Aria, in North Beach, which is my favorite place to search for antique and French papers. When I was in Paris two years ago, I found some letters from the late 17th century.
You bought those letters in Paris to cut up in your work?
Exactly. I like to use papers from the time period in which I’m working. Bookstores are a great source for me—and so are street corners. For the giantess, I found a book printed in Russian, and I cut out small pieces for decorative elements on her apron and skirt. You might notice them or not, but I like to think about the people who have handled the books, or written the letters, that I use in a sculpture.
Our thanks to Jennifer Kennard for introducing us to Patty Grazini. Kennard has reported on the artist’s three most recent exhibitions on her highly illustrated blog, Letterology, where she writes about printing, type, lettering, books, typewriters and design. Kennard likes to point out that paper is the common element linking all of her preferred topics. (We recommend her detailed observations on Grazini’s The Life of the Giantess (2012), 13 Criminals 1885-1915 (2011) and a collection of wonderfully whimsical characters (2010).
All photos, except as noted: Patty Grazini