Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas

Julia C. Mead | June 26, 1997

Monumental 'Faces'

Like her artwork, Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas defies gravity. A small, commanding woman with delicate hands and a patrician manner, she could easily be taken for a watercolorist or a calligrapher. In fact, she creates monuments of steel or bronze.

Many of her works pivot on a fine point, looking as if they might topple over in the next breeze. Actually, they are stabilized by a 500-pound concrete base, a hidden pole, or some other device.

"Obelisk," a seven-foot, one-eyed profile in bronze, intently watches the sky from above the gates to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. "Two Face Telescope," 14 feet of fabricated aluminum, was on the lawn of the Benton Gallery on County Road 39 in Southampton for about two years. It is now permanently installed at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J., an art park built by the Seward Johnson Foundation.

Intricate Infrastructure

"One Eye Wall" took first prize in Guild Hall's 1985 Artist Members Exhibit, and "Arch III," a hollowed-out lozenge, stood, 10 feet high, on the lawn there for some time.

Her models are supported by metal and wire armatures so intricate as to be admirable on their own, and later covered with a precise thickness of plaster, a process requiring their diminutive creator to climb about on ladders and scaffolding wielding large tools.

With the aid of helpers and hoists in the ceiling, Ms. Strong-Cuevas moves the models around her studio, in the woods at Stony Hill in Amagansett. She sends them to an upstate foundry in a truck that is loaded through a huge bay door at the back of the studio.

"People are shocked when they see what I do. They don't like the fact that a woman does this. But I do believe in the idea of each of us having both a masculine and a feminine side," she said.

She recalled once going to the foundry to make a special tool and hammering the molten steel herself, hundreds of times. Her shoulder was crippled the next day, but, she said, she was happy.

"I felt I was connecting to earliest man, this way-ancient past, this way-ancient method for making tools. I felt an enormous satisfaction over nature."

Unconventional Upbringing

One of two children of an unlikely marriage between John D. Rockefeller's favorite granddaughter, Margaret Strong, and and the Marquis de Cuevas, a flamboyant Chilean with an acquired title, she was born Elizabeth de Cuevas in France. She spent a good part of her childhood in fancy hotels there and in New York and Italy (her father ran a famous ballet company), and many adult years sorting out the financial conflicts stemming from her mother's second marriage, to a young proteg‚ of her first husband.

She describes her upbringing as "Victorian, in the sense that we were all over Europe, and I was alone a lot with my brother, in gardens, in Florence for a while, where there is all this beautiful sculpture."

Her parents were "marvelously theatrical. They left me very free and able to think for myself."

The Human Face

Such an unconventional upbringing, she remarked, nurtured grand ambitions. It followed that she would make a career of creating large things.

"I like to be awed, as at the Pyramids in Egypt. It gives me joy and peace. And I like things to be magical, mythological. If something is your size, then it's just another human being."

Though all her works are of the same seemingly mundane subject, the human face, they possess no Rodinesque wrinkles, no open-mouthed agony, no sign of human fallibility. Strong-Cuevas, as she signs her work, creates powerful icons that gaze outward and upward, as if transmitting thoughts to and from the gods.

At the same time, heavy eyelids, thick lips, and the juxtaposition of profiles in negative silhouette against positive, lend an inward, contemplative attitude. One is reminded too of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and Easter Island, built by primitives as monuments to the cosmos and to their own earthly icons, the priests and astrologers.

Mentor

"I love echoes of the past. I've often thought I was a link, but a link between what and what, I've never been sure," said Ms. Strong-Cuevas. She wondered out loud if, from her Chilean father, she might have inherited Mayan blood, and distilled it into her art.

At about 30, she studied at the Art Students League under John Hovannes, an Armenian refugee who liked to speak in parables. Like her mother, she said, Mr. Hovannes "never allowed me to be too pleased with myself. They kept me on a tightrope. So I had these two teachers who kept me on the straight and narrow."

Finding him "a marvelous inspiration," however, she studied with him for four years and worked another four in his studio, "a black space on 33rd Street."

Exacting Teachers

He ordered her to carve stone, "and it scared me to death." A head seemed to her the best subject for a block of stone. She tried a torso once, but cut off its head when the two didn't feel as if they belonged together.

"So I worked with the face, and I was urged on by this man who wanted me to search, search, search - not to do what I already knew." Hovannes died in 1973, and Ms. Strong-Cuevas went adrift for a year.

In about 1975, she began working with Toto Meylan, a Swiss jewelry and watchmaker. They spent five years working in her studio, a dilapidated old schoolhouse on East 28th Street. He did the metal work, building the armatures.

Like her mother and Mr. Hovannes before him, Mr. Meylan was exacting - a friend has said Ms. Strong-Cuevas "went through the Marines with him" - but again she found a generous spirit.

The Watchmaker

"Meylan, who had never before worked on anything so big, was fascinated . . . . There are people who won't work on other people's ideas, but he worked like an angel with me."

She refused to let him weld inside her old firetrap of a studio, so they made holes in metal slats, bent them, and held them together with screws.

"As a child, I said to myself that I knew I was good with my fingers, and felt I could make a watch. And many years later I met the watchmaker."

Twelve years ago, Ms. Strong-Cuevas gave up the firetrap and moved full time to Stony Hill, where she had spent the previous 23 summers.

Mr. Meylan died this year, having claimed to be 55 years old for about 25 years. One of his armatures is now preserved, unplastered, in a corner of her Amagansett studio.

"Most armatures are pretty crude, but Meylan's showed the skill of a jeweler in art," said Ms. Strong-Cuevas.

With him, she did a series of five heads, each about a foot high. They were eventually built to be five feet tall, cast in stainless steel. Each has a hollow, skull-like helmet, with a profile on an axis - chin, mouth, nose, and one eye - suspended in the opening.

She once spent an entire summer polishing them.

"Head II" has two profiles that swing on hooks like bell clappers, their weight keeping them swinging for 10 minutes per push. "Head IV" has an opening behind the bridge of the nose; she made it in plaster, not knowing that in stainless steel it would draw light inside the head.

Similarly, she did not realize until after they were cast and assembled that the heads are also soundboxes that amplify her voice into a solemn boom.

Side By Side

"Small, they looked grotesque, but I knew if the heads were bigger they would come into their own," she said, adding sadly that only one of the series was ever bought.

The late Evan Frankel, who once owned a good part of Stony Hill, commissioned "Head V," whose profile swivels to show its eye open on one side and closed on the other. It stood for years in his 11-acre garden on Hither Lane, East Hampton. When he died, he willed it back to its creator.

"I imagine them all together in a sort of temple, with no artificial light," she said. "Just the reflection off the stainless steel. They belong together."

They are, for now, side by side in her studio, where she has a gallery of sorts for a few visitors.

Tabletop Models

Exhausted after completing the five heads, Ms. Strong-Cuevas went to work in 1980 on variations on a theme. Some are tabletop models of pieces she hopes someday to make larger, others are giant slabs with profiles in silhouette, a couple are arches big enough to drive a car through.

"Four Faces Mobile" comprises four profiles in the negative and positive and a lens in the middle that suggests a gong or a giant eye. Ten feet high, 11 feet wide, weighing about 800 pounds, it stands inexplicably yet sturdily on a narrow aluminum frame, defying gravity.

To a visitor it suggests a Buddhist temple, with giant monks in attendance. To its creator, it represents thought travel, communication, a lens offering a look at the heavens.