It was the thrill of TIG welding that ignited her love for the torch, but first, it was an Antioch professor (and a liberal arts course well outside of her major) that sparked her love “for the direct handling of metal” and led to a 70-year career in sculpting.
Renata Manasse Schwebel ’53 boarded a train from New York headed to Yellow Springs, OH confident in her decision to study political science and economics at Antioch College’s rigorous 5-year program, after turning down a generous offer from Cornell. She was focused and determined about her future. But, that first fall on campus, in her first art class with sculpture professor Amos Mazzolini, she saw the world through a new lens and that changed everything. “I fell in love with sculpture.”
Describing her experience of the Antioch campus and particularities of her first experience in an arts course with Mazzolini, Renata shared, “It was a beautiful autumn, and he had moved all the equipment from the basement studio to the lawn between his house and art foundry. So we worked underneath a huge spreading pear tree, reaching up to pick the ripe fruit as needed. At half time, Mrs. Mazzolini came out with lemonade and cookies. Not quite the usual class!”It wasn’t any time before she was hooked. “I think I must have averaged twenty hours a week at the foundry throughout my college years.”
And, she didn’t let up. After graduating with a BA from Antioch College, she went on to earn her MFA, with an emphasis on portrait sculpture, from Columbia University in 1961—all the while newly married and raising three daughters. Raising her family necessarily slowed her work, but also helped to clarify it and define who she was. A young woman in the postwar era of 1950s America, and a German-Jewish child refugee herself, Renata was becoming increasingly involved in the progressive political causes of the time. All of these influenced changes in the way she wanted to work and live. “I realized I was concentrating so much on the details, I was missing the totality.”
“(Mazzolini) had a most wonderful foundry, perhaps the finest in the world at the time for art casting. The craftsmanship was unbelievable. He wasn’t exactly planning on having a woman around,” she said, reflecting he’d earlier told her that “women don’t work in the foundry.” But, Renata persisted.
She began taking welding classes 1968– 69 at New York’s Art Students League and loved working with aluminum and stainless steel. It was at this time that her studio work moved from portraiture and figurative sculpture into non-objective, hard-edged abstraction, and she was doing all the welding, drilling and heavy construction herself. In her artist biography, she writes, “I love to do my own work. I find that the feel of the material and the handling of tools is as much a part of the joy of sculpture as the originating of ideas.”
It wasn’t long before her welded metal constructions completely outsized her studio space, necessitating a move. So, she rented an abandoned laundromat and outfitted it herself with all the heavy equipment capable of creating the large works she envisioned. She was now garnering solo and group exhibitions at the likes of Columbia University, NYC’s Sculpture Center, and large public and corporate and international sculpture park commissions and collections with American Airlines, Comcraft Industries (Nairobi), Gruber Haus (Berlin), Museum of Foreign Art (Bulgaria), and The Broadway Gallery (NYC).
And then, last summer, Renata’s work came full circle; She came back home. She arrived on the campus of Antioch College, for the first time in almost 50 years, with her daughter and a rented moving truck chock full of her works, delighted to begin unpacking and begin the work of installing her solo exhibition at the place where it all began. “Antioch,” she smiled, “it set the course for my life.”
Published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Antiochian, a magazine for alumni and friends of Antioch College.