Artist Barbara Siegel Finds Beauty in Objects Transformed

Barbara Siegel and her work, "No Drips." Photos: Jeanette May (art); Carl Glassman (Siegel)

Jul. 02, 2015

In the 1970s, odd objects of unknown and mysterious origins would often land on the semi-deserted streets of Tribeca.

Barbara Siegel, an artist, began collecting this detritus flattened out by cars and trucks—an old dustpan, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, a can of paint—soon after moving to her loft on Washington Street with her husband, Gary Schwartz, in 1979.

Pieces of junk to the untutored eye, but not to Siegel, who sees instead the flattened objects’ tawny colors and irregular shapes and their unexpected textures and terrains.

“They’re gorgeous,” she said recently in her studio, as she ran her hands across the creases of a crushed can.

Siegel hung the objects on a wall and forgot about them. But last year, she felt at a loss for her next project (“not uncommon with artists,” she noted) and happened to look at the artifacts and  thought, “It would be great to draw them.” (A collection of the drawings is on display at A.I.R. Gallery, 155 Plymouth St., Brooklyn, through July 26.)  

“I like the idea of a metamorphosis, of transformation,” Siegel said. “In their original state they were functional, now they are not. But in a way they are more beautiful. And then they are given a new life as a drawing.”

The project itself was transformed thanks to Siegel’s penchant for collaborating with non-artists, in what she calls her “part biographical, part journalism”  art.

Siegel has worked closely with a mineralogist, a horticulturist and side­show performers, for example, to immortalize them through drawing, sculpture and artist’s books.

This time, she found her collaborator, Ralph Di Donato, mere steps from her door—the man who was overseeing the construction of the new building that was so close to her home that she and her husband were forced to brick up the windows on one side of their loft.

Sealing the two windows, Siegel recalled, “was very hard for me to deal with.”

“Ralph was next door a lot and we started talking and we became pretty good friends,” Siegel said. “At a certain point, I realized that Ralph had all this heavy-duty equipment at the site that would be great for crushing 

objects. I asked him if he would choose some objects and run them over for me. He loved the idea.”

Di Donato so warmed to the artistic challenge that in addition to objects he found on the work site, he scoured eBay in search of a miner’s helmet that he thought would be good material for the project.

In an email to Siegel, Di Donato explained that one of the reasons he had sought the helmet was that it represented a structure “coming out of the ground,” just as miners come out of the ground with coal or iron.

“It was very touching to me,” Siegel said, “that I was doing this weird thing and someone in his line of work was able to wrap his head around it and participate.”

Having spent countless hours watching the next-door building rise and overtake her windows, she found the collaboration cathartic.

“I loved the fact that this equipment that was so threatening to me could actually be used in a positive way in my work,” she said.

Siegel chose four of Di Donato’s pieces to draw, and asked him to email her his thoughts on the work he had done. His observations will be included in the show.

“Even in construction we manipulate drawings for site-specific design changes, as a sculptor molds clay,” he noted in his email. “We build forms to cast columns and beams, as an artist who builds plaster molds creates statues.”

“In one way or another,” he added, “we are all artists of our own lives, forever adding color and correcting the brushstrokes to make our world one-of-a-kind original!”