Sunday, October 06, 2002

Sculptor of experience

Whirlwind romances, world travel, marriage and motherhood inspire glass worker's striking creations

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Her father was not amused when she told him she was madly in love with a Saudi Arabian prince. His secret work with international heads of state could be compromised. And what would become of a nice Jewish girl living in an Arabian harem? It was time for his daughter to go to college. It was best to send her back to the States.

Margot Gotoff with one of her glass sculptures, which is on display at the YWCA gallery on Walnut Street downtown.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        So a 22-year-old Margot Gotoff left Geneva, Switzerland, for Ann Arbor, Mich., and an undergraduate degree in French. It wasn't the last trip she'd make across the Atlantic. There were many, many more. And years spent living in Rio, Rome, Budapest and Prague.

        There was also the handsome young classics professor who would become her husband and the father of her two children.

        Ms. Gotoff was not a member of the international jet set, merely on her way to discovering her “essence.”

        At 61, she has learned who she is: a sculptor of extraordinary talent.

        She climbs the steps to the Women's Gallery at the downtown YWCA. A show of her molded glass sculpture fills the second floor space with prisms of radiant color. There are winged figures in cobalt blue, feminine faces in russet red and the sensuous curve of a woman's back sprinkled with flecks the color of persimmons.

        “I'm 61,” she says. “I dip a lot into the dye pot. My sister said, "Margot, your hair never was that color.' I can't believe I'm so old. When I lose weight, I'll look younger.”

Gotoff sculpts clay, the initial step in making her glass sculptures, in her Northside studio.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        She looks a decade younger. Her hair is jet black, as are her eyelashes. She's wearing black - a V-neck jersey with a bit of dicolletage and black slacks. There's the trace of a New York accent and a frequent smile. She is animated, energetic, intelligent and very, very funny.

        “I taught art in Harlem,” she says. “It is so tough to teach there they allowed dumb men to get out of going to Vietnam by teaching in these schools. I was the fourth art teacher that year. The other three were chased away by the kids.”

        On the go, go, go

        It's hard to keep up with Ms. Gotoff or to anchor her in time. She's nonlinear. She jumps from her childhood to her work to her first love to her lasting love for her husband, Harry. One moment she's in Brazil, the next in a small cafi with her friend Dorothy Weinstein in the old section of Geneva.

  What: Classyglass: Sculpture by Margot Gotoff
  When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday- Saturday through Nov. 1
  Where: Women's Art Gallery, YWCA, 898 Walnut St., downtown
  Admission: Free
  Information: 241-7090
        “We're having coffee and suddenly this teeny little man comes over and says "I'd like to present you with two drinks,' ” she remembers. “I knew someone who was working to stop white slavery - where they would dope up young women and take them across to France, and you'd never see them again. I said we couldn't accept those drinks.”

        The drinks were from His Royal Highness Bandar Saud of Saudi Arabia, whose party they later joined. When the prince asked the two young women to join his entourage the following evening, they enthusiastically agreed.

        “He rented out a whole cinema so we could watch a movie,” Ms. Gotoff says. “We were having dinner in his suite. He'd flown in Egypt's most famous singer - women die for this guy - to sing for us. Suddenly in comes this darker, arrogant man with a bleached blond call girl on his arm. He was Bandar's brother, Prince Tamar Saud.”

        There was a little dancing, a little dining and soon Ms. Gotoff and Tamar fell in love. “It was very exciting while it lasted,” she says. “You're 22, and you're so madly in love, and it was so exotic.”

        When she told her parents about her prince - they had been out of town traveling - they were not happy.

        “I had enrolled to study Arabic, and my father said "No you can't do that because I don't know if there are any spies there. They could do terrible things.' ”

        Humanitarian father

        Ms. Gotoff's father, Gaynor Jacobson, had been employed by the U.S. government to help relocate survivors of the concentration camps. He negotiated with heads of state to relax emigration quotas to accept the dislocated Jews into their countries. The work was secret because many heads of state, including those of Arab nations, did not want it known they were admitting Jewish immigrants.

  Born: June 5, 1941, in Rochester, N.Y.
  What makes me laugh: People in awkward situations.
  Last good book I read: The Last Time They Met: A Novel by Anita Shreve.
  Favorite indoor activity: Reading and drawing.
  Favorite outdoor activity: Gardening.
  How I earned my first dollar: In Brazil, for a manufacturer of auto parts made from powdered metal. I was a hostess for commercial exhibits. When I got paid I went immediately to a jewelry store. The money did not go toward a college fund.
  I'm most proud of: My children.
  Three words that best describe me: Loving, sense of humor and I can take life with a big grain of salt.
  Nobody would believe it if they saw me: walking for six miles in Rome.
  Favorite vice: Hot fudge sundaes.
  Every New Year's I resolve to: be sweeter and lose weight.
  The last time I stayed up all night was: It's often.
  Person I most want to look like: When I was 15, it was Marilyn Monroe. But it's not today. At my age, I'm content with who I am and just want to make a better version.
  To me courage is: Being strong when you'd really like to lie down and cry; putting on a good, smiley face when inside you're pretty raw.
  One of my greatest fears is: That the government will do something ridiculous, like declare war.
        Mr. Jacobson helped hundreds of thousands relocate after the war and won numerous humanitarian awards, including the Star of Brazil and Israel's Theodore Herzel medal. Later, he worked to find homes for Jews displaced from their countries.

        He was also a sculptor.

        Her father's humanitarian work - both her parents were social workers - was the reason the Jacobson family traveled so much. Their first posting - they took the first commercial flight to Europe after the war - was to Prague, Czechoslovakia, when Ms. Gotoff was 5 years old.

        Two years later the family moved to Budapest, Hungary, where Mr. Jacobson was invited by the country's foremost sculptor to work in his studio when he had time. Ms. Gotoff and her younger sister added Hungarian to the Czech they already spoke fluently.

        “Then we went to Paris, and every Sunday we had to visit a museum - the Louvre or the Museum of Modern Art,” Ms. Gotoff remembers. “Sometimes I liked it, and sometimes I didn't. But what I noticed was how my father would change. He would become very unhappy, very intense because he saw something he wasn't doing full time.”

        Ms. Gotoff loved Paris, but acculturation was difficult. “There was a lot of anti-Americanism,” she says. “And the kids were not nice. I ended up at the International School.”

        Brazil to New York

        After spending a year in Buffalo, N.Y., which was an even greater cultural shock, the family moved to Brazil.

        “Going down to Rio was amazing,” she says. “I was 15 and in Rio. I loved the warmth of the people, the kids, the culture. I felt very Brazilian. I didn't want to leave.”

        But there was always the next assignment. Ms. Gotoff graduated from high school and began taking college courses in Sao Paolo. When her parents moved to Geneva, she finished her bachelor's degree in French literature at the University of Michigan. After graduation, she assumed her parents would pay her way through the graduate program at New York University, but her mother said, “It stops here.”

        Furious, Ms. Gotoff took off for New York.

        “I never thought about being a sculptor,” she says. “I loved art, but I never thought about it. It wasn't until my senior year at Michigan that I took a course on sculpture. Something in me lit up. I felt this pull.”

        In New York, she worked for Gimbel's department store, working her way up to floor manager. “I started taking night classes in sculpture at The New School and the Art Students League. That spring, my parents came for a visit. I was applying to Columbia to be a social worker. A question on the application said why do you want to be a social worker more than anything else in the world. Tears came to my eyes. ... I really wanted to study sculpture.”

        Witnessing his daughter's conviction, and perhaps thinking of his own lost dream, her father offered to pay her way. She returned with her parents to Geneva because she knew graduate school would be cheaper there. She was accepted at the prestigious L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, where she studied for two years.

        “I got this wonderful classical training,” she says. “ ... I was four hours a day with a live model and four hours in the afternoon stone carving and figure drawing.”

        Irresistible works

        Her classical background is apparent in her work. Her figurative pieces are dramatic, in many cases artfully fragmented, adding another dimension to already dynamic pieces. The interplay of rough and polished surfaces that reflect and refract the light creates an otherworldly luminescence that draws the viewer in. Mythological references, psychological subtexts and modern depictions of ancient statuary are irresistible.

        “She is taking classical, traditional images while working with a medium that is very new,” says Marta Hewett of Marta Hewett Gallery at Glassworks in Louisville. “She does things that are pretty remarkable in scale, size and style. She is not only one of the few people in our area working in glass but she's a woman. ... The field of contemporary studio glass is dominated by men.”

        Many of Ms. Gotoff's pieces are large and heavy because of the solid glass. Whenever she needs “muscle” she calls on Harry.

        The two met on a blind date in Boston. He was a young professor at Harvard; she was teaching art part-time at Chelmsford High and Middle School , working afternoons in the studio on her sculpture.

        “We had a wonderful time, and at the end of the evening he escorted me to my car and said, "I'll call you,' ” Ms. Gotoff remembers. “That was in June; I never heard a word. Finally in September I get a card from London inviting me out to dinner.”

        Hard to get

        Harry had been trying to get in touch with her since that June evening. But all summer she had been in her basement welding and did not hear the phone. The card was the start of something big - so big that she broke up with Harry in November because they were too close.

        When she came to her senses and tried to contact him, he claimed he was no longer interested.

        “Finally I got him to dinner, and he told me years later that he saw how much I had gone through to get him back - the new pot for the lobsters, the fortune I spent on the wine. But he was playing hard to get.

        “We didn't start seeing each other again until January. We were in New York, and a dear friend of my parents called and asked me what I was doing; I said I was in New York with my boyfriend. When I got off the phone he asked, "Why did you call me your boyfriend? How about fianci?' ”

        They married the following year. “It's a wonderful marriage, she says. It will be 33 years in October.”

        Work, back to school

        Almost immediately, they left for Rome where Harry worked on a book and Ms. Gotoff had a show at the American Academy. She was pregnant with their daughter, Leila, and was sculpting on the kitchen table.

        “I remember when my father first heard I was pregnant,” she says. “He said, "That's it. You'll never be a sculptor now that you have children.' Maybe it's good to have fighting words. If you are a weak person you cave in. If not, it's something you fight against. In the end they are gifts.”

        She never stopped working, even after she had their second child, Daniel.

        The family moved to Cincinnati in 1986 when Harry took a job in the University of Cincinnati classics department. When Ms. Gotoff couldn't get studio space at UC, she went back to school, earning a second master's degree in sculpture. (Her first came from L'Ecole.)

        “I think Harry thought I was going to teach high school, you know, contribute to the family income,” she says. “But there wasn't enough time left over for my work. Harry has always been totally supportive and wonderful about my art. Except when we fight, and then he says it's your avocation.”

        The process she uses is time consuming and rare. She works the glass like bronze, although glass has entirely different properties.

        She creates her figures in clay then makes a mold. She dries the mold in the oven then gets slabs of glass -

        8 or 10 pounds each - and smashes them into pieces. She then piles the chips into the mold, creating a mound on top.

        If she is using more than one color, she layers the chips to create the flowing patterns she is known for. The piece goes into the kiln at 1,475 degrees for eight hours, then the heat is brought down slowly for about five days to prevent the glass from cracking.

        “You never know "til you take it out if it is going to fill the mold,” she explains. “Glass flows like molasses.”

        She polishes the surface with diamond pads and sends the finished piece out to have them mounted. Each piece takes several months to complete.

        “It's a process unlike other art forms - the difficulty, the delicate nature of the finished product. It's intriguing,” says Jeffrey Kraft of KL Fine Arts Inc. in Chicago who carries her work. “Margot's work is fresh. She is a really nice person and her personality comes through in her work. It makes you enjoy a piece even more.”

        Her work is also shown at galleries in San Antonio, Texas; Aspen, Colo.; Minneapolis and Phoenix. She has a large commissioned piece standing in a public square in Cherry Creek, Colo., and one in the Saudi Arabian Royal Collection, although it had nothing to do with Prince Tamar. She taught at UC and for eight years at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She leads two classes a week in her Northside studio.

        “You know people always say you lived all over the world. You've had this fascinating life,” she says. “It was fascinating, but it wasn't always easy. My father was busy saving people. The problems of two little girls were miniscule. But what it did for me was make me sensitive to other people and cultures, a representative of my country. That was fascinating. I think I loved it.”

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