Art and transformation
Ellen Hanauer of Livingston talks about her new exhibit on immigration, and how she got there
By the time the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia commissioned Ellen Some Hanauer of Livingston to make one of five little houses for an exhibit called “This Is My Home” in 2021, she’d already been through a number of styles and passions as an artist.
Some things always remained stable for her, she said. Ms. Hanauer grew up in West Orange and graduated from Mountain High School there; now she lives in Livingston. She’s been a member of the JCC MetroWest throughout her life, and she attributes much of her education and inspiration as a maker of physical objects to it.
But she didn’t start out as the sculptor and installation artist she is now, an artist whose work, expanded from her little house at the National Liberty Museum show, is on display at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown and later will move to the IA&A at Hillyer Gallery in Washington, D.C.
It took time and some artistic adversity to get there.
When she was growing up, she knew that there were some artists and supporters of the arts on her father’s side of the family, but it wasn’t until much later that she learned that one of them, the woman known sometimes as Romany Marie, and occasionally as the Queen of Greenwich Village, was a relative.
Romany Marie — more prosaically, Marie Merchant — was a restauranteur who ran what basically was an American capitalist’s version of a European salon, a place where artists and intellectuals gathered to talk, eat, drink, boast, and exchange the kinds of ideas that led to more art. Marie, who came to America, not surprisingly, from Romania, was described as an incandescent person, a woman of great wit, intellect, and charm, who was a vital presence in lower Manhattan until she died, at 75, in 1961.
Romany Marie entertained and sustained, among many others, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, the architect Buckminster Fuller, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and the great Jewish American journalist Ruth Gruber; it’s claimed that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote the poem that began “My candle burns at both ends” at Romany Marie’s.
“My father remembers her walking on Bradley Beach, in full regalia” — Romany Marie took dressing up very seriously — “with her arms full of bracelets, dangling,” Ms. Hanauer said. “She was a vision.”
Ms. Hanauer went to Syracuse University, where she studied both fine art and advertising. When she graduated, in the early 1980s, she got a job at the ur-Madison Avenue advertising agency then called McCann Erickson. (It’s the McCann Group now.) But eventually she got tired of that life; she got married, and had her first children — twin girls, followed eventually by a son and another daughter.
That was the start of a happy domestic life. “I am married, with four children and five grandchildren and they are an integral part of my life,” she said. “So are my parents” — Phyllis and Richard Some, who still live locally — “and I’m fortunate to host Friday night dinners each week for four generations.”
But she’s an artist, and she has to make art.
For about a year after she left Madison Avenue, she worked at the JCC, helping create its catalogues, and then she took a more local, more corporate job.
“The JCC job was fabulous,” she said. “It was so creative. The JCC has been a constant in my life. I went there as a kid, I grew up there, and my career really started there.
“I took a class in stone sculpture, beginning when I worked there, at the JCC,” she continued. “I think I took it for like seven years, and the instructor kept telling me to quit my job and sculpt full time.
“So finally, when I was 35, that’s what I did.”
It’s not that she didn’t like the more commercial sort of art that she’d been doing, Ms. Hanauer said. “But I didn’t control my creative process. It was a business.” She needed more control over her own art.
Her first body of work was political. “It was very feminist,” she said. She worked for the legendary Penny Hawkey at McCann; “she was the poster child for working moms,” Ms. Hanauer said. “She was an archetype. I had never seen anyone like her before, but I felt like I lived through her.”
When she first started sculpting, Ms. Hanauer “started making female figures that didn’t look contemporary. They looked almost like they were 10,000 years old.
“We had a lot of hardcore feminists in that class,” she continued. “One of them told me that I had to read this book — it was ‘When God Was a Woman,’ by Merlin Stone,” who, maybe coincidentally, maybe not, also was a sculptor. “That book turned my life upside down,” she said; it deconstructed the biblical story of Adam and Eve in a way that made her angry because of the inherent misogyny that she could not unsee. That anger fueled that first part of her art; her feminism has not cooled, but that first hot surge of rage has become more controllable. “It kind of evolved,” she said. “My work has taken such a transformation. It’s not about anger now. It’s about connecting people and it’s about universality. It’s so very different now.”
Her next body of work focused on the body.
Because she was so interested in muscles, Ms. Hanauer audited a class on them for physical therapists at Rutgers medical school. “I called it the cadaver lab,” she said. “I took it because I wanted to know how muscles work; I’ve seen so many artists who didn’t get them right.
“I remember seeing a class on PBS where someone was talking about drawing lettuce, and she said that you have to know the anatomy of lettuce before you will be able to draw it properly.” And what’s true of a head of lettuce surely must be true of a human head. Or at least a human arm or leg.
“I realized that I needed the basics, and I wondered what Leonardo would do. Where did he go to start? It made sense to start with the body.”
Okay. How do you do that?
“I knew bone structure from high school and college, but the muscular system intrigued me,” she said, so she asked the medical school if she could audit the class. “I didn’t do any cutting,” she said, reassuringly. And she learned a lot. “When I started sculpting, it was abstract, but I asked myself what I would make if I could have the skin and fat and fascia and muscle.
“And so I started making these pieces.” It was an almost visceral act of physical creation, she said. She loved it.
She displayed some of the work from that period at the JCC, and some people who walked by the show in the lobby loved it, but others did not. It was intense and highly physical. She wrote a pamphlet explaining how parents could explain the art to their children as they saw it in the lobby, but really, she said, the pamphlets were more for the parents anyway. They were the ones who had to come to terms with what they saw. Most children love gore. They got the art immediately.
Ms. Hanauer was doing well as an artist; she was inundated with ideas and was able to turn many of them into physical objects in her own studio. She was creative, she was productive, she was showing her art. She combined ideas with material objects; she worked on such fascinating if politically dangerous ideas as fetuses in artificial wombs. What would it look and feel like to have a baby develop in a soft, cozy space outside your body, so that you could look at it and then leave it behind when you went out for dinner?
There was so much to imagine and create. So many possible worlds. So many issues to explore and concretize. Also, so many commissions. So much work. So very many ideas and so many of them realized.
And then September 11 happened. “Everything crashed for me too,” Ms. Hanauer said. Amid the “societal loss and human loss,” which was overwhelming and devastating, “my ideas also went flat.” So flat, in fact, that she tried to work in two-dimensional media, but as a friend told her, “I love your 3D work, but as a painter, you are an acquired taste.”
For the next decade or so, “I made art but I couldn’t place it,” Ms. Hanauer said. “I couldn’t get into any shows. Everybody rejected it, and I had no idea why.
“I had a really hard time getting my hands to sculpt. I could draw — I have an encyclopedia of 2-D work. It’s not like I didn’t have any ideas, but I couldn’t get my hands to do it, and my ego was shot.
“My sense of self came from being an artist. If I wasn’t an artist, I was nothing. I was a zombie.
“It isn’t as if I didn’t do a lot of other things. I co-wrote a book with a friend, a quirky little thing called ‘Power Tools and Rituals.’ It’s a mix of outrageous and authentic projects.
“Someone once came to my studio, saw the book, and said, ‘Ohmygod, I used your book to raise my kids!’
“And I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to meet those kids…’”
During that very long fallow period, Ms. Hanauer kept trying to work, and to figure out what she might be able to create if sculpture no longer was possible. “I was still creating something every day,” she said. Among other arts, she tried acting; she took an acting class at the Puffin Center in Teaneck that she loved, but she realized that acting was not her true calling. “I was experimenting, but nothing stuck except the depression of being blocked.
“I tried photography and drama and singing,” but nothing worked.
“Then I decided to leave fine art and go into theater design,” she said. “I thought I’d start small and local and see what happens. But in one of my artist Facebook groups I saw that Kean was getting rid of its fiber departments and also getting rid of the yarn those departments used.” Aspiring fiber artists were welcome to go to the university, in Union, and pick up whatever about-to-be-discarded fibers they chose.
“So I go into a room that was bigger than you could imagine, full of tens of thousands of dollars or more of really beautiful wools and yarns.” She was so intimidated by the gorgeous display that she thought she merited no more than one skein of yarn, but she would take that one skein. But then she ran into the gallery director, and she started talking to him before she realized who he was, and she helped him move a loom, and, well, long story short, soon he was telling her that she should submit a proposal to use the yarn to make art. “I thought, good, I’ll leave art on a high note,” Ms. Hanauer said. “It was going to be my story, about losing my sense of self and trying to get it back,” told through yarn.
She wrote the proposal; the gallery director, Neil Tetkowski, “wasn’t thrilled with it, because it sounded hokey to him,” she said, but it was approved. “It was a small gallery, and he just thought whatever,” she added. “I had a 25-foot wall of basically glue and thread. I made everything from their discards.
“He came in and saw it and he was shocked, and he was very different with me after that.”
As it turned out, Mr. Tetkowski is also a “great artist,” she said, and he is a well-known, well-respected one.
“At the end, right before the show closed, he said, ‘You’ve got something here. You’ve got to expand it.’ And that was all I needed.
“That undid all those years of torment. It took just one word of encouragement from someone in the know.”
A year or so ago, Ms. Hanauer submitted a proposal for the show in Philadelphia. “It was basically inspired by a space, 8 feet by 12 feet, that came to me as a blueprint,” she said. The work she described in her proposal “was nothing more than an idea in my head.
“I had done a piece called ‘My Grandpa’s Ties’ that was focused on what had motivated my grandfathers to come from Russia and Russian-occupied Poland to build a life here.
“They both wore ties all the time.
“One of my grandfathers — Ben Schulman, my mother’s father — started as a butcher’s assistant, and then he started buying fat and selling it to soap companies. Then he was dealing in coal, and then in oil, and finally in air conditioning. He was based in Newark, and he wound up taking a lot of his brothers into the business.
“He was a businessman; he worked from the time he was 3 years old, in Russia, pushing a wheel to make the slits in matzah dough.
“I think of him as a little boy, doing this. He had butchered animals in Russia; when he came to this country he was 13 and hit the ground running.
“So I thought to myself, ‘What did these ties represent to him?’ He wore them to work. He wore them to temple. He always wore a button-down shirt, and most of the time, until his much later years, he almost always wore a tie.
“My other grandfather, Louis Some, came from Russian-occupied Poland, now Belarus, when he was 11. He was in haberdashery sales; he would go to stores to sell clothes, always wearing a suit and a tie.
“He wound up selling insurance, and this is the most incredible thing. He didn’t speak any English when he came to this country, but he became Metropolitan Life’s number-one salesman in the country.
“Both of my grandfathers were very successful in their jobs. This speaks to the desire of immigrants, including today’s immigrants, to have good lives.”
It was unusual for her to focus on men, Ms. Hanauer said, and yes, she also had grandmothers — Sadie Schulman and Sara Some — “but it went back to the ties.”
The show in Philadelphia had five little houses. “They were all the same size. They painted the outside whatever color we want, and the inside was white, and we could do whatever we wanted inside,” she said.
“I was hoping to create empathy for immigrants who are coming today,” she continued. “I felt the way to do this is to encourage others to look at their own history. At their family’s immigration record.” Many people assume that everyone in their family who made it here did so legally, but most people have some family members who broke the law to come here and stay.
And in the case of Jews, including her own grandparents, “if they hadn’t come here that way, they would have stayed in Europe, and they would have been murdered like the rest of the family.”
Ms. Hanauer knows of 46 members of her immediate family — men and women and children and babies, she said — who died in the Holocaust. She has that memorialized in her little museum house, too, in “a piece where I have all the names that I was able to get, and their relationship to each other,” she said. “I feel like it honors their spirit.
“Each piece represents the information that I have, combined with my imagination.
“I created a piece of luggage made out of paper, and I made stickers that normally would list a destination, but instead they showed the character-building objects that people would have had to overcome when they came over,” mostly in steerage. “Dealing with sickness. Dealing with homesickness. Dealing with rats.
“I had another piece about being outsiders, once they got here. They couldn’t speak English. They felt so vulnerable. I had a piece about learning the language. That was an antique sewing machine that I used to create a felted book. I felted letters into pieces of batting.
“The biggest piece in the room was a paper bed. It’s full size, but you could pick it up literally with three fingers. It expressed the fragility in their lives, even when they were in bed. Even when they were asleep.
“And what did they dream of when they were lying in that bed? I had sheer banners that hung over it.” There is another piece about survivors’ guilt.
“What ties all of them together is that each piece is meditative. Each took time and thought.”
Although the art that was in the little house in the museum in Philadelphia moved over to the gallery at St. Elizabeth, there’s more room in the newer exhibit, so Ms. Hanauer could include some new pieces. “I created a fireplace and I hung pictures of relatives,” she said. “It represented their dreams fulfilled. I wanted to end on a positive note.”
Now, she added, “I’m expanding into other people’s immigration stories. My son-in-law was born here, but his family came from Ukraine in the 1970s with no money.
“Working on immigration is heartbreaking and inspiring,” she said, but she’ll continue to make more art from that heartbreak and inspiration.
There will be an open house at St. Elizabeth on Wednesday, March 29, at 5 p.m.; a panel discussion will follow at 7. It’s open to the community.
Ms. Hanauer will talk about that exhibit, and her work on immigration, at the JCC MetroWest on Monday, April 24, at 12:45 p.m. The community is welcome to that talk. It’s free; call Jelena Skrodski at (973) 530-3474 for information and reservations.