An uncanny ability to discern subtle nuances and use them in bigger-than-life bronze statues of a wide variety of personalities has helped catapult sculptor Susan J. Geissler into the national art scene.
But, with the help of the Historical Association of Lewiston, she is finally gaining more recognition in her own backyard – first with her “Freedom Crossing” bronze monument on the banks of the Niagara River commissioned by the Historical Association and now with her “Tuscarora Heroes” bronze monument to be unveiled Thursday at Center Street and Portage Road.
“We are so proud to have Susan as a part of this,” said Lee Simonson, the association’s volunteer project director for the new monument. “One hundred years from now, people will be saying, ‘That’s a Susan Geissler.’ ”
“It’s a pleasure working with Susan,” added Simonson, who has known Geissler for decades. “What makes her special as an artist is that she unselfishly allows others to become a part of the process. She asks, ‘What do you think?’ and ‘What do you like?’ So, by the time she’s done, everyone is thinking they are a part of it. She is a valuable treasure for Western New York.”
Geissler recently took some time out of her busy schedule to chat among her statues – prototypes and finished products – in her Main Street storefront studio overlooking the Niagara River in Youngstown, where people often wander in to visit.
Are you a Lewiston native?
I was born in New Jersey and moved here when I was 14, when my father was transferred here with Chemetron-Noury Corp. I graduated from Lewiston-Porter High School in 1971 and then from Niagara County Community College, which had an outstanding art program, then from Buffalo State College, in fine art.
How did you embark on this career as an artist?
I started with papier-mâché projects under Polly Nelson at Lew-Port – I always wanted to make life-sized animals. … Years later, when I was installing “Freedom Crossing,” I saw a woman standing nearby and realized it was Polly. I got her picture with me sitting on the (sculpture’s) boat, and she said she didn’t think she belonged there, and I told her, “Polly, you have no idea how much you have to do with this.” To me, that’s where my career started, with the papier mâché animals in her class.
I never studied sculpture. I was in fine arts, in illustration, drawing and design, and I had an interest in textiles, which later became very important in my work because of the clothing I put on my sculptures.
What were the early years like?
I was making animals out of papier mâché, life-sized, at my parents’ house, and I worked at Dr. Sass’ office and then worked as a temp at Fisher-Price, and then I had a job at Howard Johnson’s, where I met the man who would become my husband, Peter Henderson. He handles the business side of my work, and I’m on the production side. We’ve been married since 1999, but we’ve been together more than 30 years. He’s a good man. I’ve been in this studio 15 years, and he found this studio for me.
How do you develop the idea for a sculpture?
In the early stages, you’re figuring out your plan, and you can be interrupted because you’re not in the heart of it yet as far as being emotionally involved. It’s all technical. People like to visit here, come in and sit down and talk to me, because this is not your normal business site. I love visitors, and I love to give tours of my work, and you get to meet people from all over the world here. But this is my job, and when I get to the sculpting phase, I lock the door. Under deadline pressure on a commission, it’s amazing what an artist can do. It’ll be finished because it has to be. You just go on automatic pilot.
When I’m working on a commission, I work from afternoon into the evening. In the morning, I take care of the house and my animals. And there are days when I get to the studio and I can’t get motivated – I have “dry brain.” So I’ll do other things, like vacuum or research. But once I get turned on, I can’t stop. I don’t even want to talk to people, I’m so focused.
How did you develop the idea for the new Tuscarora Heroes monument?
I was commissioned three years ago to do this statue. Lee Simonson and I have known each other a long time, and Freedom Crossing and Tuscarora Heroes were both his visions.
I had a friend come in, and I photographed her, as well as a young woman who is a ballerina, and I had her express different emotions. I told her, “You’re running for your life, people are being scalped, and they’re burning things to the ground. You’re scared to death. The Tuscarora Indians are coming to the rescue and reaching their hand out to direct you down the road to safety.” Gracie got very watery-eyed as she posed. The one Tuscarora is based on photos my friend David took on the reservation, and the other Tuscarora figure wasn’t really based on anyone in particular.
I do a thumbnail sketch, and once the idea is down, I do a small (clay) concept piece, and we sit down and clarify things, and then I do a model, and they come in again and we do some tweaking.
Neil Patterson Sr. helped from the Tuscarora Reservation, and Belinda Patterson, and (artist) Geoff Harding. I had musket experts and re-enactors come in because the dress had to be authentic.
You’ve had commissions for monuments in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, etc. – how do you feel about working close to home?
Lee knew my work was being recognized out West. He said, “We have this artist right here in Lewiston – why don’t we ask our local artist to do this?”
The people in Lewiston and Youngstown maybe didn’t purchase much of my art back then, but they were always supportive of it by loving it, I guess. They’ve only had kind words for me all along the way.
Now, there is NCCC’s life-sized bronze of founding president Dr. Ernest Notar and local philanthropist Norman Sinclair, who was head of Lockport Savings, which is in the NCCC Culinary Arts building in Niagara Falls. I have been commissioned by the Aurora Historical Society in East Aurora to do one of Millard Fillmore. That will be a big project. I also have a statue in the Adam’s Mark Hotel, and there are sculptures in private residences in the area.
How did you make the leap into outsized bronze?
This (success) doesn’t happen overnight. I did outdoor shows forever – Allentown was my first because my husband filed the application for me. I had had enough. I told Peter I wanted to do public commissions, and he said, “That’s the direction you want to go in?” I said, “Yes, big sculptures in bronze.” So, he changed gears on the business end and started seeking commissions. He’s been very important to my career.
What was the evolution of your art?
My papier mâché evolved into pulpy sculpture materials, but there were no fine details. Then I did sculptures out of chicken wire, kind of like ghosts. Then I started to get more refined.
I started using Hydrocal and then Forton (sculpting materials) in the 1980s, and then I thought, “I’m ready for bronze.” “Potato Man” was my first bronze, and things started picking up. I started sending out proposals, and one day it just seemed the door opened up. It was time.
What will the Tuscarora Heroes unveiling mean to you?
This is our thanks to the Tuscaroras for saving our lives and acknowledging that this really did happen.
When you know so many people will show up and be there for it that you know, it can be overwhelming. At the Freedom Crossing unveiling, the music was so emotional. It was really moving – very powerful. When they took the tarp off, the people started coming up in droves to congratulate me. I felt the love. It was remarkable. I won’t ever forget that night as long as I live.