Malibu artist Eugenie Spirito has been carving stone for more than three decades. She began her career as an artist in New York City, where she earned an invitation to apprentice with avant-garde abstract expressionist Philip Pavia, a powerful force in the American modernist movement.
It wasn’t easy for a young woman to make a place for herself in the strongly male-oriented New York sculpture scene, even in the postmodern era.
“My first sculpture class in New York with Philip was with 14 men,” Spirito recalled. “I was the only woman. After three weeks, Philip said ‘you’ve got something, would you like to apprentice with me?’”
Spirito’s work shares an element of Pavia’s primal, primitive ethic, but it is distinctly her own. There’s a suggestion of Cycladic Greek sculpture in the abstracted human forms she carves from alabaster and soapstone, and an evocative hint of shamanism in her work that manifests in the sinuous forms of lovers, ancestral spirits, and serene deities she creates.
Spirito and her husband Lou met and married in New York, but soon found themselves drawn to California. The couple shares adjacent studio space in their Malibu home.
Eugenie’s studio is on the patio just outside the room where Lou writes. Their dog Tanner, a rescued pit bull whose story is the subject of Lou’s book, “Gimme Shelter,” divides his time between the two, taking his job as resident muse seriously.
Many of Spirito’s sculptures are small enough to be held and easily moved, inviting the viewer to connect directly with the work. She uses electric tools sparingly, usually at the beginning of the sculpting process, but prefers hand tools to bring the form she envisions within the stone into existence. It’s a slow, unforgiving and frequently exhausting process that requires strength, stamina, and patience. Spirito describes it as a form of meditation.
“Consciously or unconsciously I put my intention into every work” she says. “Love, healing, calmness.”
There is a certain playfulness in some of Spirito’s works, as well. The skull of an imaginary creature, part dinosaur and part sea monster carved from limestone with empty eye-sockets and a skeletal grin greets visitors.
On the day the Messenger Mountain News visited Spirito’s studio, she was shaping a piece of dove-gray alabaster into the form of a female nude, the curve of the torso emerging slowly, millimeter by millimeter, from the stone.
“When I start something I have an idea, an inspiration, but as I work the stone starts to communicate to me what it is,” Spirito said.
Nearby, a partially completed carving revealed the beginnings of a face suggesting an abstracted Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion.
“If I have a couple of pieces going, one will make me finish it first,” Spirito explained. “I need to create, I need it like air,” she said.
Spirito has experimented with many types of materials and techniques, but she is especially drawn to alabaster, finding inspiration in the smooth texture and varied colors. She especially loves the translucent beauty of orange alabaster.
“It’s getting hard to find,” Spirito said. “The earth is getting used up.”
She explained that she is committed to leaving a small environmental footprint with her art: small footprint, but not small of heart. Spirito said her ambition is to leave the earth a more beautiful place.
For more information on Spirito and her work, visit her website.