Artist Mia Fonssagrives-Solow on Her ‘Femmebot’ Sculptures, Her Famous Parents, and Where She Finds Her Many Materials
Her new show at Findlay Galleries includes dozens of quirky aluminum and bronze creations.
“This is Cixi, named for the Chinese Empress. It’s also a portrait of my daughter-in-law,” says artist Mia Fonssagrives-Solow, touring through the 43 sculptures currently on view in “Robots/Femmebots,” her solo show at Findlay Galleries in New York.
“A lot of these are family members,” she says. “This is Bibi, my beautiful 15-year-old grand-daughter who will replace Gigi Hadid one day. This is my mother in Dior. Oh, and this one is Irving, my step-father.”
Given her demeanor, it’s hard to tell, unless you know otherwise, that Irving is none other than famed photographer Irving Penn, her step-father. Her mother, that’s Lisa Fonssagrives, the woman widely cited as the first supermodel.
But in Fonssagrives-Solow’s sculptures, these figures are rendered playfully, even whimsically, which is perhaps unsurprising. Fonssagrives-Solow herself is buoyant and bubbly as she discusses finding recycled materials like laundry detergent containers and children’s footballs to build models for her sculptures, which are then cast in aluminum or bronze at a foundry in Long Island City.
We recently sat down with Fonssagrives-Solow to talk about her latest “Femmebot” series, lessons from her famed family, and where she finds all of her source materials.
Your new show includes a mix of Robots and Femmebot. What exactly is a Femmebot?
We’re surrounded by Femmebots today, I’d say, so it wasn’t a stretch at all. I named one Russian Asset. I was following all the Maria Butina spy business in the news when I named that one. A few of [the sculptures] got a little blown out in the casting, but I like the surprise of a not-totally-pristine work. As for the Femmebots, I think finally, in this country at least, women are coming out from under the domination of men. You know, I’m not up for much of the Twitter nonsense, I like to talk to people face-to-face, but Taylor Swift, the Kardashians, these women have built empires and that’s a great model for young girls. They’re the Femmebots of today.
Many of these are portraits of your friends, your grandchildren, characters from popular culture. When you’re making these, do you know who they’re going to be?
Oh no. I realize that afterwards, once they’re done. If I start working on a sculpture and I don’t like how it’s going, you know I’ll just cut the head right off with a breadknife. But when they’re finished, these sculptures all have a personality. I made ones of my grandchildren and they could all see right away who was whom, without me saying anything.
The hands on these sculptures are very expressive.
Oh, I’m so glad you said that. The hands are all because of Irving. When I started making sculptures, Irving looked and them and said, “Mia, go back and do the hands.” And I thought “Oh, he’s right.” In the beginning the hands were very simple. So I did [go back], and I started focusing on the hands to make them more personalized and expressive.
You make the models for all of your sculptures from found materials before they’re cast in either aluminum or bronze, right?
Yes, you know I pile all the materials up in my basement in Connecticut. There are Tide bottles, yogurt containers, a little flipper belonging to one of my grandchildren in all of these sculptures. All sorts of things. I’ve made some taller sculptures for this show and these are supported by disc brakes used in cars. I use them as bases. I first saw one on the side of the road and I went back to get it in the middle of the night. It was extraordinary garbage! Sometimes I’ll just go to the dump. I saw a bunch of used disc brakes at a garage and I asked to buy them. The man said, “Please, just take them!”
Where did the inspiration for these figures come from originally?
I’ve always been interested in totemic figures. My husband and I went to the Cyclades Islands and I was so inspired by the figurines I saw there. I’ve always painted too, which is something I’d like to return to, and I painted these kinds of figures. But, maybe the most important thing was that I was kicked out of the art class at Dalton and had to take shop with the boys. I learned all about machines, and working with wood, and welding. That was the best thing for me.
Your parents were the Swedish model Lisa Fonssagrives and the pioneering “beauty” photographer Fernand Fonssagrives. Not to mention, your step-father was Irving Penn. What lessons did they teach you about art and life?
My mom taught me everything. First of all she said, “You have to be ready for the revolution.” She taught me how to sew, how to cook, how to clean, how to ride horse and wire a lamp. To drive a tractor, a jeep, how to change a tire. My father taught me joie-de-vivre and to celebrate the beauty of nature, all the time. And Irving, he taught me work ethic. Which is just to work all day. If I can’t be working on sculpture, I’ll be sewing something or organizing papers. That’s how we were raised, my brother and I. We’d have breakfast together and then everyone would go off on their own and just work away.
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