In the garage studio, artists have a place to create near the comfort of their homes. And for Palo Alto artist Fabienne Bismuth, the space is a launchpad of creativity.
Bismuth, a French-American sculptor, creates cast-stone and bronze sculptures. Her trademark is in the expressive, gestural poses of women. The pieces have been getting taller and longer as time goes by. Ever since she expanded the studio, she isn't afraid to go bigger and bolder.
While she's working, the garage door remains open to get fresh air. Her current work is on top of a stool with a rotating board and a mirror behind, and the walls have torn-out pages from Vogue taped onto them. Her sculptures of women take the spotlight in their confident poses. Bismuth also uses cast stone as a model for her bronze works. At first glance, it's difficult to tell the difference between the two types of sculptures through the sheen of their painted surfaces.
Of her bronzes, Bismuth said, "The fact that it's in bronze is more definitive, gives more strength." On the other hand, she said, her stone pieces are "less predictable, breakable, one-of-a-kind. You can see fingerprints. There's no technical process; it's all the way me."
But both materials portray the women: the bronze in its permanence and the cast stone in its individuality and fragility. "The artist's life is lonely: You're facing your material so you can express whatever is inside. But you need feedback from the world," she said.
Bismuth gets this feedback in part by inviting in visitors. Next month, she's joining the many area artists who'll open their doors to the public as part of the annual Silicon Valley Open Studios program for the first three weekends in May. Bismuth is participating on the second weekend, from May 14 to 15.
Typically, artists taking part in weekend one, May 7-8, are in central and southern San Mateo County, including studios in Menlo Park and Atherton. The second weekend focuses on Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford, Mountain View and other nearby towns. The third weekend features San Jose and other South Bay artists.
Bright-eyed and clearly passionate about her work, Bismuth said she finds the open-studio interactions invaluable — a brief yet lively break from the fairly solitary act of sculpting. The open studio was her first exhibition venue in 2005.
"This is the one time that I get real interaction with people. It's very special," she said. Bismuth invited two other artists, Nilou Farzaneh and Nadine Defranoux to show with her because "it's more fun that way." (Defranoux isn't part of Silicon Valley Open Studios, but was invited by Bismuth.)
Bismuth light-heartedly described some of her open-studios visitors in past years as "sweaty boys coming from baseball practice come ringing the doorbell. I'll have them come in and give them something to drink and they can look at art."
Being from a family of artists, Bismuth grew up in France surrounded by art. Her parents were interior designers and her brothers, an architect and a painter. She decided to go in a different direction and got a Ph.D. in biochemistry instead.
It took a big move to another country for Bismuth to start sculpting. After moving to California from France with her husband and son, she found herself in "a good time to reflect." She left her previous job in biotech engineering in France and was also pregnant with her second son. During this time of reflection, she bought her first bag of clay and upon "feeling the clay, I was hooked."
She took classes at the Academy of Art in San Francisco to get her foot in studying art. But Bismuth's leggy sculptures were far from the proportion-driven curriculum she found at the academy. "I decide what I want to do," she said. So with the skills she acquired at school, she dove deeper into her art, developing and honing it.
"I sculpt what I'm touched by," she said, adding: "You bring your personality. You put part of who you are in the piece." Her love for bell-bottoms is apparent in some of her tall, model-like sculptures. Works such as "So Fashion!" have short torsos and long legs. She pointed out her own short torso with her hands, laughing.
In her living room, a long, gray sculpture of a man and woman stand at the corner of the display room — the man's hand fused into the woman's body and vice versa. They are two people but they are one couple in Bismuth's hands. They are nearly the same height as the artist and her husband.
Bismuth puts herself in her art and she wants viewers to touch her women, too.
"They want to be touched — like people do," Bismuth said. Human hands leave a residue on the bronze sculptures; it keeps the surface shiny and the corners get darker, she said.
Bismuth teaches students in her studio and volunteers but is also in charge of marketing her own work. She spends half her time creating and the other half marketing, she said.
Her love of sculpture has opened many doors, one of them being the Art Expo in New York that she attended from March 25 to 27.
"It was fantastic," she said, mentioning that 15,000 to 20,000 visitors attended the event. "It was a good chance to make gallery contacts."
She's also part of the South Bay Area Women's Caucus for Art, and has gone with other artists from the group to teach art to teen girls who are incarcerated.
Life as a professional artist has one motivation for Bismuth. "You don't do it for the money ... but I need to physically sculpt. It's addictive," she said.
When asked how she knows her works are finished, Bismuth said, "I spray water from the top of the sculpture and watch it go down." The water needs to trickle down on the clay, over the bumps and ridges of the female form, in a particular way. She keeps going back to the piece until water flows down, following the lines of the woman. The water drop at the base of the clay finally draws one project to a close.
What: Silicon Valley Open Studios, an annual event in which many area artists make their studios open to the public during the first three weekends in May
Where and when: On May 7-8, open studios are generally located in southern San Mateo County. On May 14-15, most studios are in Palo Alto and elsewhere in northern Santa Clara County. The third weekend features San Jose and other South Bay artists. Studios are generally open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Admission is free, with art for sale.
Info: For studio locations and other information, go to http://www.svos.org .