- Noble Elephant
Visiting Judy Sigunick's studio, a sunlit space attached to a fantastically ramshackle, Edward Gorey-like house in Cragsmoor, which she shared with her husband and fellow artist, Phil, was an unforgettable experience. Every shelf, table, and most of the floor was crowded with ceramic heads and figures, many of them fine-featured girls with fragile-looking bodies, one draped majestically in a cape fashioned from used coffee filters, some seated on elephants, all scarred and cracked from the firing process. (Sigunick had developed her own complex technique, which allowed for the imperfections she delighted in.)
Sigunick's archetypes, inspired by Persephone and other figures from Greek and Egyptian mythology as well as Western literature, explored personal narratives while the totemic quality of her head and animal sculptures had a kinship with African art. More than mere representation or a recitation of styles, however, her clay figures seemed to embody the mysteries and ambiguities of the human condition, bearing the rhythms of birth and desecration in their scorched and fissured surfaces.
- Ball of String
Such a transcendent imagination seemed to defy the limits of time and space. Indeed, Sigunick's art-making energies overflowed into the community, enriching the lives of many. Her empathy, joyful enthusiasm, disciplined work ethic, inquisitive mind, humor, and generosity of spirit were such an outpouring of life and youthful energy that news of her passing on April 19 was a shock to many in the wide circle of her friends and colleagues.
Despite fighting cancer, Sigunick was the eternal optimist: friends who had seen her not long before her death noted that she was filled with ideas and planning new work. "Judy's enthusiasm and sense of joy were a gift to those who knew and loved her," says artist and former gallerist Eleni Smolen, echoing the sentiments of many. "She had so much energy for her family, friends, and art, and, yes, even kimchi!" (Reportedly, she made the best.)
- A Pink House
Raised in Chicago, Sigunick graduated from the University of Illinois. With her first husband, she lived in Europe and Israel before moving back to her home city and becoming a social worker. In 1969, her newborn child was tragically killed in a car accident (a trauma that later found its way into her art, along with her complicated relationship with her sister). In the 1970s, after having two more children and separating from her first husband, she met Phil Sigunick at his pottery class at Bleakley Studios in Cragsmoor. They later married and had another child. "The minute she walked in the room, I knew she was an artist," Phil says. "She was into art all her life. All I did was help her acknowledge that."
- Dad’s Pancakes
In her memoir, Sigunick wrote of her loaded relationship with creativity, "My older brother by two years taught me that boys are best at art and dissections of small living creatures, have the highest IQs, and that girls best keep to the nuts and bolts of being stupid. At least, this is how it seemed...I waited until I was 47 before separating myself from a mercurial brother's erroneous assumptions and began a life of personal longing, studied art with a group of barely competent teaching artists called professors, and learned about vicissitudes and nurturing a fertile and creative mind sans older bro."
By her late 50s, Sigunick had earned an MFA from SUNY New Paltz and had begun exhibiting her sculptures and works on paper in solo and group shows throughout the Hudson Valley and in Soho. She later taught at Dutchess Community College (DCC), Marist, and SUNY New Paltz. She was also a big proponent of public art, curating the "10x10x10" show of storefront art in Ellenville for three seasons and fulfilling numerous commissions herself, including a life-sized concrete rhino for the Rosendale Youth Center and a multi-section concrete whale for the Poughkeepsie waterfront. Both projects involved the community: kids and local residents fired many of the ceramic tiles affixed to the pieces.
Professor Emerita Pamela Blum, who hired Sigunick to teach ceramics at DCC, particularly admired her qualities as a mother. "She was so loving and supportive of any decision her kids made," says Blum—decisions that included, on the part of daughter Rachel, working in Afghanistan as a lawyer, and on the part of her daughter Ellen, documenting the stories of street kids in Kenya.
Not long before her passing, Sigunick completed a limited-edition book entitled Letters to Shakespeare. Consisting of 17 richly colored and patterned oil-stick paintings of Viola and other Shakespearian characters, each work on paper is accompanied by a love note to the Bard, beginning tenderly and familiarly, "Hello Shakespeare." According to her daughter Ellen, Sigunick had also embarked on a second project, entitled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Viola," which further plumbed her fascination with the cross-dressing character from "Twelfth Night." (Viola was also a prolific subject of her sculptures.)
- Miracles of Nature
Sigunick became enamored of Shakespeare after taking a class on the playwright with Leigh Williams at DCC when both were teaching there. "She made interesting connections and had unusual insights into the plays," recalls Williams, adding that Letters to Shakespeare "is deeply tied to Judy's own past. She saw in his work deep human themes" and brought a feminist twist to her interpretations. Sigunick shared an interest in Shakespeare with her son, Adam, a dialog that brought her much joy and continued into her last days.
- Safe Space
Sigunick once blogged, "Theater is monumental. It's also mercurial, temporary, and meant for us—suspending time, briefly altering our own realities. Borrowed costumes manipulate our experiences of each character, and the lighting, stage sets, co-opted space, [are] all designed to touch our minds and feelings and coax us into recognition of ourselves in them. Some briefly [sic] and borrowed ideas from Shakespeare's works buzz around my brain, like crazy mosquitoes just waiting to land me a character to feast on, to reflect upon, but mostly to curb assumptions, predicting plots, and prod me along—into worlds full of possibilities never before imagined." Like her muse, Sigunick's own work takes us into uncharted, enchanting territory—a legacy that will live on. Flying Horses
Even in her nightgown my mom seemed elegant to me. She'd settle in her bed, propped with pillows and write her stories. She captured me, her youngest, with her white refrigerated but quiet sort of beauty and cozy warm undertones beneath a 30 something disengaging melancholy, like she knew, she just knew, she had missed her train. I never actually saw her write her short stories but I knew, from evidence that she did. My sister, Phyllis, knew about the rejection letters.
- Exquisite Moments
Those stories died with her.
Nothing left of them.
If her ghost would come forth and beckon me straight on, neither to the left nor to the right, but straight on Truth, I would walk naked in the forest with mom and talk of her brilliance and introduce her to her Self, an artist who can tell a story like no other.
She would know me without my costumes.
Would that I could take her hand in mine to climb onto the train, just us, knowing we're on track.
- Down the Hatch
Nothing to do.
The stage has no stairs. But the horse doesn't need them.
In the beginning I was born an artist.
And a sister.
- Saving Pieces
The wife, student, teacher, caseworker and mom parts came with choices.
Dad loved eating and cooking.
He invented a caramel corn machine.
Mom might have risen to accomplished writer, but instead clung to scripted expectations of her south side of Chicago Jewish community. She dressed* in skirts, high heeled shoes, lived by the Housewife Code, was badgered into submission to rules of young womanhood written by powerfully bad tempered men, one being my grandpa who loved her and sent her, as a free woman, to Northwestern University to study Journalism when such freedoms were uncommon. His gruffness made her cry. His money and power freed her. Frightened and fragile, incapable of confrontation to protect an energetic imagination, she married at 19 years old, managed the household finances and the underpinnings of a fashionably successful family with two cars in the driveway, shopped, cooked, had her nails done (all by 25 years old), sent her three children off to school, accused the colored woman of misdeeds like stealing the scotch, which mom drank, socially, on the rocks. It started when the Poker Game Group strolled in, two by two, husbands and wives, and our dining room table morphed into a world of ashtrays rapidly filling with bad smelling butts, cigarette smoke creeping into my favorite hiding spaces, sounds of swirling ice and screeching laughter from my favorite aunt. Hiding upstairs, I imagined not growing up this way. Mom napped on our couch just about every afternoon, and then, when I was a young teen, she announced her plan to return to school. She completed her undergraduate studies followed by an MA in elementary education. Dad's manhood was startled into submission and he acquiesced for the unbridled pride of the woman he loved and the need of extra income for our middle class family of five. He seemed angry. She dug in and engaged The Battle, admirably. Then a huge graduation celebration, planned and catered by Dad, and off she went to teach in a low income Chicago neighborhood south and west of our statuesque brick home near Lake Michigan, loved by her colleagues and students.
I imagined I could do this when grown up.
*The cedar closet in my brother's room was filled with a treasure trove of odd clothing including an equestrian wardrobe . I'm pretty sure it all fit Mom.
- Nature’s Plan