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A Natural Woman

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Local sculptor turns biology into art
08/12/2008

It’s 9:30 p.m. on a sticky July evening and I’m standing outside Lillstreet Art Studio in Ravenswood. I’ve parked the Prius I’m borrowing from a friend and I’ve used my iPhone to call local artist (and old friend) Rebecca Zemans and let her know I have arrived.

It’s a fitting, if not ironic, start to the rest of my evening, which will be spent in Rebecca’s studio learning about her current body of work, “a critique on our culture and how it has progressed in its evolution, specifically with technology and nature.”

Thinking about that dichotomy that has kept Rebecca busy this past year, during which time she served as Artist-in-Residence in metalsmithing at Lillstreet. Her artistic goal during that time, when she had the luxury of time to focus solely on her work was “to connect the idea of technology in the cell and technology in our outer, larger, macroscopic world, comparing and contrasting the two.” The residency culminates this month with Natural Progressions, a show of original work by Rebecca and the other resident artists.

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Rebecca and her heavy metal

With a BA in anthropology and a BFA in metalsmithing, both from the University of Michigan, Rebecca considers herself a current, contemporary anthropologist. “[I’ve got] that archaeology thing going on in the back of my mind,” she says. She uses ancient techniques for clay-work and metalwork to try to figure out how machines have affected us as a society and how we are evolving along with them.

“These original art forms–clay, metal–these materials found in our environment have progressed to allow us to have computers and TVs and telephones. They’re all made of metal, essentially, and you need copper wires and steel wires to transmit information.”

In addition to gaining inspiration from nature and man-made machines, for the last few years Rebecca has been flirting with the idea of the cell as a major theme of both her sculpture and her jewelry. “The biological cell is this fundamental building block that I believe works like a machine. It is the most efficient machine possible. It creates human beings.”

Much of her recent work, including the piece below entitled Vat in the Brain, Rebecca notes is “modern but ancient; it has plastic.” She says this particular piece satisfies her need to create. “I’m going to put a circuit board in as the nucleus, because that’s what a nucleus is; it runs the show. It’s a play on the question of are we machines? Do we really run ourselves? Or is someone else controlling us?”

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Vat in the Brain

Just as the materials she uses have evolved in their use, so has Rebecca’s artistic process and focus. Her previous body of work used the same materials–ceramic, metal, rubber, and concrete materials–but was more allegorically themed and centered around things found in the natural world, like flowers, figures and animals.

The Cycle was inspired by Rebecca’s birthright trip to Israel, and incorporates found materials from her time there. She was there when the war broke out in July 2006 and having decided to extend her trip beyond the 10 days, she “pretty much spent the next two weeks hiding out in Herzliya.” She brought home ball bearings she picked up off the ground and integrated them into her design.

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The Cycle

Of course, not everyone sees what Rebecca sees when they look at her work. And she’s okay with that.

“For me it’s my own psychological sublimation,” she says. “I look at the news and I get really upset… the process of making [art] helps me to deal with that. But I’m very grateful that other people get lots of different things out of it.  One of my friends says ‘you always make ovum. That’s all you do.’ I guess that’s right, I do! I’m a woman artist! And a lot of people see sea creatures, I don’t know if that’s subconsciously because I’m a Pisces… But I’m just glad that they like it!”

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After the JCC where she was working received a donated Torah, Rebecca was commissioned to create this ner tamid -- which she calls Burning Bush -- for above the ark 

In addition to being a woman artist and a Pisces, Rebecca’s Judaism also very much informs her work. She believes part of the reason she is drawn to the abstract, organic shapes she often creates is because of the Jewish idea that we are not supposed to recreate the human form.

Moving forward, Rebecca will continue teaching art classes, which has been her main source of income for the last several years. For her next projects, she hopes to hone in on the concepts of networks and mapping and the transference of information. She is particularly interested in nerve cells and skin cells, because “those two types of cells are related to sense and instinct, and processing information.” She has also started her own line of retail jewelry, still playing off the cell and the nucleus. “But it’s all ovum, too. Women like circles.”

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A sample of Rebecca's jewelry

I drive Rebecca home in the futuristic hybrid push-button car while listening to a band from the past. We reminisce about growing up in Hyde Park and I admit how big a crush I had on her brother while we laugh about how not my type he is now. Plenty has changed since we were elementary school kids playing four square and watching episodes of 90210 during her parents’ annual Rosh Hashanah party. Rebecca has evolved from an all-star volleyball player to an accomplished artist. Natural progression? Not necessarily. Good fortune for those of us who get to see the fruits of her labor? Definitely.

Natural Progressions runs at the  Lillstreet Art Center  through August 28, 2008. Samples of Rebecca’s work and her contact information can be found on her website,  www.rebeccazemans.com .

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