Extended Q&A: Award-winning Sculptor Richard Edelman

Milwaukee Sculptor Richard Edelman has been given the Frank L. Weil Award for the Advancement of Jewish Culture in North America, the first time a recipient has been named since 1992. His works can be seen throughout the city.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

It seems like you took up sculpture only after a successful career in the steel business? Why the urge to start when you did?

I’d always been interested in the arts. When I was younger I did a lot of writing. I was very much involved in literature and graphics and things. You might just say it was a long deferred dream.

How would you classify your work?

The medium is metal. I’m traditional in the sense that I want to make something that is permanent. I still believe in sculpture as a medium of permanence and persistence that goes on for hundreds of thousands of years, so I don’t believe in a short time-line for a work of art.

In terms of execution, I’ve really gone in a couple of different directions. I love and really began in abstraction. David Smith is kind of a God for me. Somebody like Calder, Picasso, all of those people who took sculpture to new places are important for me. But along the road, I also started becoming interested in traditional representation. I’ve done 8-, 10- and 12-foot classical nudes in stainless steel and bronze that are probably influenced by Michelangelo. I love what sculpture can do, and I’m not limiting myself to any particular approach.

What are the goals or themes of your pieces?

I would say my two most important themes are movement, often expressed in dancing figures, and then Biblical storytelling. But we’re not talking about church graveyard work, or angels overlooking tombs. That’s not what I do. It’s more a dynamic reinterpretation of some of the stories that are inherit to our western culture.

Is there a single public work in Milwaukee that you’re particularly proud of?

There’s a lot I love. If you’re looking at my figural abstraction work, in the Third Ward, Three Dancers. These are three intertwined figures. They rise to 20 feet. They’re in the three primary colors. It’s three traditional ballet poses. There’s right across from the Pitzlaff building,

The pieces that are probably the most monumental are the Pillar of Fire and Pillar of Cloud at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point, which are pretty extraordinary works in terms of what it took to get metal that high up in the air, to get it twisting and evoke the ideas of fire and clouds in stainless steel at that weight.

Most of your work is in the Midwest, but you recently installed a sculpture in Krakow, Poland. How did that come about?

I was on a trip to Krakow. Since Schnidler’s List was shot there there’s been an explosion of interest in Krakow as a tourist destination. It’s become this crossroads. And there’s a lot of talk there about what does identity mean in modern Europe? What does it mean to be a Pole? To be a Jew?

I wanted to be part of that. I expressed that interest through Hannah Rosenthal, who’s the president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and she contacted people in Krakow. One thing led to another and that’s how that installation happened.

The Shofar Krakow is described as resonating sculpture. What does that mean, and what was the inspiration to design it that way?

The shofar is a ram’s horn traditionally, and it is played by blowing through it like you’d blow through a trumpet. I actually created a shofar once in Congregation Emanu-El B’Ne in Milwaukee at about a 10-foot scale. It’s a cubist conception. I decided to make it hollow so that the real shofar could be blown through my big shofar and it would act like a gigantic megaphone.

I do have an engineering background, and I thought why not make this thing resonant? In Krakow, when they looked at a portfolio of all my work, they just loved that particular conception and requested it. It has and will be continued to be played.

The idea behind it conceptually is we’re giving voice. We’re crying out. This is cry of memory. It’s a cry of history and it’s a cry of warning.

The Frank Weil Award has been given to big names like Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel and fellow sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. How does it feel to be included in that list?

It’s absolutely mind-boggling. It’s not a phone call that you ever anticipate. It’s an honor. Without sounding like I’m making an Academy Award acceptance speech, the really wonderful thing about it is the validation it offers. We all want to be out there in public, and understandably so. Committees are nervous, and committees want to know why or who or what. The thrilling thing about this is when I go before public committees, I can say, ‘Look at this.’ And then can say OK. Things like this get your name out there and get you some credibility.

How does your Jewish identity shape your work?

I would not term my work religious. I’ve often said to people, ‘Was Michelangelo a Catholic artist when he did the Pieta? Not that I’m comparing myself to Michelangelo. Was he a Jewish artist when he did the David and his famous Moses? I think what he was about as a Renaissance artist was storytelling.

To that extent, I don’t think I’m a Jewish artist. I’m an artist. Some of the stories I like to tell are stories that come from the Old Testament tradition. I know them. I think they’re powerful. So I have represented those in some of my works. They mean something to me but I think they mean something universal.

You share a birthday with the creation of the modern state of Israel? Does that coincidence influence who you are at all?

I suppose it does. My grandfather was an early Zionist guy. I suppose when I was born on that day he thought that was pretty amazing and maybe meant something to him. Whether my fate is tied to the state of Israel more than any other Jewish person or Christian, I don’t know. It’s kind of fun. I wish I was younger. I wish I was born May 14, 1968. If it has to be ’48, let it be ’48.

You were born in Iowa, studied engineering and philosophy at MIT and owned a metal trading company in Chicago? How come you decided to make the Milwaukee area home? Why do you remain here?

I was born in Davenport, Iowa. When I was about 10 or 11, my family moved to Milwaukee. My father took us to Milwaukee for a job and to go to the big, big city. I graduated from Nicolet High School. Like everybody who won the science fair in the Sputnik era, I ended up at MIT. I had a couple different stays in Milwaukee, but I ended up in Chicago. Long story, but as soon as I retired I came back to Milwaukee and always had a family home in Milwaukee for many, many years. So Chicago was always, in my mind, temporary.

Are there any big projects you’re working on now?

Partially because of this award, I got this new opportunity where I’m going to be creating a major piece for Hebrew University, which has ten Nobel Prize winners in the sciences on their science campus in Jerusalem, which will be installed next year.

Recently, a statue in Shorewood was removed, altered and replaced after it was alleged by some to contain ant-Semitic phrases. What’s your take on the situation?

I didn’t think it was necessary. I think there’s a lot of reading things that weren’t really there. If you take a pile of random letters and spread them on a table, you’re going to find pretty much what you want. I think there was of some of that going on. Plus the artist had a history of making statements that were anti anti-Semitism. So I didn’t see it, and I would guess the artist went through that process just to be sure.

‘Point of View: Richard Edelman’ appears in the July issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the July issue on newsstands beginning June 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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