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My piano, my father

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Sculptor Ann Sperry has looked within before. Her series “Personal Interiors,” dating from the late 1980s, was an almost literal inner journey about the shapes of things – kidneys, hearts, veins, ovaries – inside the human body. The large-scale “Personal Interiors” works related to the personal, but in a universal way. “They were personal, but not about personal memories,” said Sperry.

“My Piano,” her latest series, is about Sperry’s own personal memories, intensely so. “My Piano” – 22 sculptures, 11 books, and two collaged monoprints, showing through Aug. 26 at the David Floria Gallery – is Sperry’s way of connecting with the father she never fully knew, who died when Sperry was 15. The “My Piano” pieces, started some four years ago, were intended to stir something inside Sperry, to awaken her recollections of her father. In the end, Sperry discovered that the series was about memory – most specifically, the memories of her father, but more generally the concept of memory and its fragmentary nature. The full name of the series is “My Piano: The Fragmentation of Memory.”

“So this whole journey I was on was about this fragmentation of memory,” said Sperry. Creating “My Piano,” she continued, “made me so acutely aware of memory and the part memory plays. How little fragments of memory can awaken a whole new way of thinking. And about generations – passing things from one generation to the next. People don’t have to be alive to pass things on to the next generation.”

The piano before `Piano’

Elias Samols, Ann Sperry’s father, was not a pianist, but a Yiddish poet, and a proofreader and typesetter for a New York Yiddish-language newspaper. Neither is Sperry a pianist: about the closest connection she has to music is her husband, tenor Paul Sperry, who was an Aspen Music Festival and School faculty member for 25 years. He has also designed costumes and sets for the Aspen Opera Theater Center and the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Years ago, however, inspired by the nursery school teacher she adored, Ann Sperry wanted to be a pianist. At age 4, she was so serious about becoming a pianist that when her father brought home a toy piano, young Ann threw a fit. The tantrum made an impression – according to family lore, it was Sperry’s first – and her father went and bought a 1934 Sohmer spinet piano. Not until her father died more than a decade later did Sperry learn that the piano was bought on time, and her father had paid it off over 10 years.

At 8, Sperry attended the children’s program at the Manhattan School of Music. There she faced a harsh reality. “I realized I had absolutely no talent,” she said. “And I was surrounded by people who were very talented. It was a rude awakening, because in the Bronx I was considered very talented.”

Sperry abandoned piano at 13, but not the world of the arts. She attended the High School of Art and Music as a visual arts student and went on to Sarah Lawrence College, where her instructor Theodore Roszak guided her toward welded-steel sculpture. Sperry has gone on to a distinguished career in sculpture, exploring fundamental issues – the Old Testament (the series “The Creation: Seven Days”), the planets (“Galactic Gardens”), maternity (“Rites of Passage”) – in her large-scale, welded pieces. Her works are permanently displayed at the Aspen Center for Physics and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and featured in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Getty Collection, Crown Hall in Jerusalem and the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University. Sperry’s most recent work, the only piece done since the “My Piano” series, is a 39-foot-high wall hanging commissioned by the University of Rhode Island.

What might be her most impressive work was designed as functional art. In the mid-’80s, Sperry won a competition sponsored by the Seattle Arts Commission Percent for Art Program, which resulted in 1988’s “Seattle Garden,” a 334-foot long installation bordering a downtown Seattle power substation. The aim was to prevent kids from climbing onto the substation grounds. Sperry’s sharp-edged, flower-inspired metal work not only served the purpose, but also beautified the neighborhood: Sperry claims “Seattle Garden” has never been subjected to graffiti because it doesn’t look as if it needs spray-paint enhancement. (The piece also gives Sperry a chance to flash a sense of humor: “If it were New York, they would have put up chain-link fence. Because it was Seattle, they had an art competition,” she quips.)

Fragments of her father

“My Piano” is different for Sperry in several ways. The pieces are in a smaller scale than ever before. Sperry, who considers herself primarily a welder, had hardly ever worked with wood. And though she says a lot of her past work has had some personal meaning for her, never has it been so direct as this.

Though she wasn’t a pianist after her childhood efforts on the instrument, Sperry never let go of the piano her father had bought. Over the years, it was loaned to friends – including the late composer Jacob Druckman – given to her children, and moved from climate to climate. Four years ago, the piano had come to the end of its useful life.

“I tried to give it away to a settlement house. They said it wasn’t good enough,” said Sperry, who lives in New York, and has spent some 25 summers in Aspen.

Resigned to the fact that the piano could no longer function as a musical instrument, Sperry began looking with her sculptor’s eyes. And thinking about her devoted father.

“Here was this poor, sad piano. Everything was cracked; it couldn’t be tuned. I thought, what could I do with it?” she said. “I did know I wanted to do something in [my father’s] memory. It was moving to me to think he could do this for me. He didn’t make much money, and it couldn’t have been easy for him to pay for this.”

As soon as she looked inside the piano – with the help of her assistant and a crowbar – Sperry saw the possibilities. “I work with found objects,” she said. “When I looked into the piano, I saw a collection of incredible shapes. I had never looked inside a piano before, not really. I saw how long the keys really were, in back.”

Out of the pieces – the ivory keys, the wood sounding board, the felt and wires – Sperry began creating the “My Piano” series. Spurred by the piano as a whole, and the scattered individual parts, Sperry began to piece together recollections of her father. And that turned to thoughts about memory generally.

“The other thing I thought of when I took the piano apart and put all the pieces in a box, I saw how fragmented it all was,” she said. “My memories of [my father] are very fragmented.”

Making “My Piano” put her father in sharper focus. Sperry re-read the poems of his that had been translated into English. She pulled out old photographs of him, and reached out to cousins who knew her father better than she did.

“My Piano” also helps close the book on Sperry’s long-ago stab at music. The 11 books in the series – music books to Sperry – feature photographs of her playing her piano and images of her father. There is also musical text, made barely legible.

“This piano teacher I had thought little girls should play French music. I wanted to play Bach; he wanted me to play Ravel and Debussy. And I hated that French music,” said Sperry, who calls the books “Histoires,” after a suite of piano pieces by Jacques Ibert. “When I started `My Piano,’ I started thinking about the music. But the music was all gone. So I found reprints, and distorted the music so no one could ever play it.”

Dark humor aside, “My Piano” is about the deepest things – memory, using art to make emotions immortal, and reconstructing a father never fully known in life.

“It was this love and devotion in him,” said Sperry. “I felt so strongly about him, and I didn’t really know him.

“I really thought I had to make something alive, make the piano live again.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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