Magazine article Sculpture

Playing with Fire Geny Dignac

Magazine article Sculpture

Playing with Fire Geny Dignac

Article excerpt

Geny Dignac says that she has "a love affair with fire." The Argentina-born, Arizona-based sculptor began incorporating living flames into her work during the late 1960s. As she explains the relationship: "I respect fire; I'm bewitched and obsessed by it, but I'm not intimidated by it, and I always feel in control." When Dignac began using fire, artists all over the Western world were experimenting with radical new materials, techniques, and ideas. More than four decades later, Dignac is still refining, rethinking, and exploring new possibilities in her fire pieces-and many other kinds of sculpture.

"I don't feel old," Dignac commented in a recent telephone interview. And, in photographs and in person, it is difficult to guess her age. This diminutive, bright-eyed woman with a cap of dark hair has boundless energy, a keen intelligence, a love of adventure, and a tremendous sense of fun. She does admit, however, that she is beginning to slow down, "just a little bit."

Eugenia Dignac was born in 1932 in Buenos Aires. Her mother taught art at a local elementary school, and her father was an electrical engineer who loved music. As a result, Dignac's childhood involved learning to paint with watercolors and regular trips to the opera and orchestral concerts. She was passionate about music, singing in several local choirs and studying the piano. Early on, she wanted to become a professional concert pianist; instead, she decided to go into visual art-painting, initially-because it was more forgiving: "I could paint whenever I wanted; I didn't need to practice three hours every day." The same desire for personal and artistic freedom has informed Dignac's entire life.

Ironically, she notes, her parents "saved" her, by not allowing her to enroll in the capital's Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Prilidiano Pueyrredón. At the time, this august institution, named for a prominent 19th-century Argentinean painter, was "very conservative and rigid." So, Dignac was largely self-taught as an artist: "I pursued my imagination and found a way to do the things that occurred to me, with no limitations or barriers. I was free."

For her, artistic freedom has always been paired with intellectual rigor. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, where she specialized in history. But her friends were mostly writers and fellow artists. In 1954, at the age of 22, she spent her school holidays visiting her sister, who had married a diplomat and was living in Washington, DC. Rather than returning to Argentina, and despite her parents' threat to cut offfinancial support, Dignac stayed. She landed a job in the art department at the Pan-American Union (now the OAS), after convincing her skeptical boss, who had "wanted to hire a boy, because the position involved lifting, moving, and opening heavy wooden crates," that she could do it. And she did.

At work, she met and fell in love with José Y. Bermúdez, a painter, sculptor, and graphic designer from Cuba. They married, purchased a modest house in suburban Oakton, Virginia, and raised a family. The personal and professional relationship established between these two artists was strong, Dignac explains, because they worked so differently. Both of them painted, but while Bermúdez made preparatory drawings for his work, she never did. "I don't know, beforehand, what my work will look like," Dignac says. "I like to be spontaneous, and to build [large sculptures] on site. Bermúdez thought I was out of my mind with the fire pieces. But he never said I shouldn't do them. We encouraged each other to do whatever crazy thing we wanted."

Once their daughter Melanie was born, in 1964, Dignac found it difficult to keep painting and turned to making collages, which she says she found "liberating." The collages soon became three-dimensional, with curving paper strips encased in plastic hemispheres. Some of these were shown in the 1968 "Experiments in Art and Technology" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. …

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