Letitia Goes to Town

A Young Texas sculptress takes the New York art and theater world by storm.

July 1973By and Comments

IT WAS SCARY, BUT LETITIA Eldridge knew what she had to do—head for New York. Just leave Austin in January and light out for the territory of art and theater, straight over the Mississippi, around the Appalachians, and right across the Hudson River where so many young artists had crossed before her. Let the insidious ice-rain pierce the ratty fur coat and freeze the muse-struck marrow of the bones; let the cabbies laugh and drive on when they see the jumble of paper-box luggage; let the nose forget the stench of urine in the shot-gun apartments that shored up every wave of immigrants. It had to be done.

So Letitia packed. She zipped her ceramic sculptures into the motley colored wool bags knit by her mother. Then she carefully checked the contents of her matched set of cellulose luggage—sculpture, script for her play, Moonlight/Obituary for Dreams,—grabbed her fur coat and left.

New York received her well. Last January, she wangled a private showing in the Trustee Room of the Museum of Modern Art and a June production date at La Mama Experimental Theater Club for her play. In less than a month she conquered two of the most important bastions of culture. She had done it. Gone straight to the top, Texas fashion. Straight to the top, twice. But to understand what Letitia does in ceramics and in the theater or how she managed to lay siege to those bastions you need to see Letitia on her own ground. In Texas.

Row upon row, wall upon wall of ceramics line her East Austin studio, waiting to be dried, bisqued, or glazed. Everything is miraculously in its place, the Renaissance atelier you’ve always imagined. Where the finished ceramics leave off, the clay takes over. Clay, everywhere, clay being modeled, clay on the floor, clay on the counters, and clay in the living quarters. It can be a shock to realize that the source of all this work is only one woman.

Until she speaks she could probably pass for a carhop from Waxahachie. Then, as she talks, sitting on the edge of her table, her hands take on a life of their own and shape clay. Her delicate porcelain-skinned face reflects the surrounding blaze of coppery hair. Suddenly she changes before you. She’s making ceramic sculpture.

She’s not making cut little pots or objects to hold cigar ashes. Nor is she making cups, plates, bowls, or vases. She’s making masks, hundreds of masks when no one else in the country is making masks, especially out of Louisiana clay. These masks were preceded by a series of landscape balls and are complemented by a series of sculptured objects, such as divining rods, toys, and animals. Yet Letitia manages to transcend all prosaic ideas normally associated with clay. Clay in her hands is no longer a building element, like a brick, or a utilitarian object, like an ashtray, or a decorative object like a vase, or a theraputic event like occupational therapy or arts and crafts.

Every object she creates begs to be handled. You don’t approach her work as a passive spectator, but as an active participant in any game you want to create. The game each spectator creates is limited only by the imagination. Her landscape balls must be picked up, held, rolled around, or held close to your eye to transport you to the meadow of your mind which matches the meadow on her ball. Watching someone don and doff her masks convinces you that a kaleidoscope of personalities has glittered before your eyes. You can no longer make the distinction between mask and face. Letitia suspends your disbelief, liberates the player in you, and enchants your imagination. Once you see and participate in the magic of her sculpture you are ready to see Letitia’s play.

Her theater piece Moonlight/Obituary for Dreams, is loosely called a play, but there is no real word for its presentation of urges, movements and intuitions; it’s not a conventional play with plot, characters, setting and costumes. Letitia’s play evolved from her life of the past year and a half. By combining the poetry from her 2,000 page notebook, her ceramic sculpture, and her characters with their ritual movements and interactions, she creates a multimedia theater which rides the non-existent line between ritual, drama, dance, poetry, and sculpture.

Letitia uses masks in the play to localize her intuitions and to name them. The intuitions are not just stream of consciousness fobbing itself off as Theater of Clay. The sculpture, ritual, and dance are not just ornaments in a formless play about a person who makes sculpture, but a fusion of verbal and visual images in a highly structured abstract sequence. This fusion of imagery is Letitia’s play begs the spectator to play along, even if only to leave the theater.

Through the interplay of characters, actions, ceramic objects, visual and verbal pictures Letitia manages to suspend disbelief, liberate the player and enchant the imagination. “There’s so much information in this play that some people can go on different levels and try to figure out what’s going on. Genevieve [a character in the play] loved Ploom? Big deal. People can go listening to the poetry and the metaphors and watching the visual imagery, the interplay of masks, or they can just go…sit…let it happen to them then waltz out and go uuuupp.…And just use it as propulsion.”

Letitia did not, however, sit serenely in Austin, then propel herself to New York. What made the trip to New York possible was the appearance of her ceramics in the Cleveland Museum of Art. There she won a prize for ceramics and was immediately sought out by the most important museum directors in the country. In her home town of Fort Worth, long-time supporter Henry Hopkins included her work in his collection. So did the director of the Guggenheim, so did the Catherine Reswick collector of the Cleveland Museum. Yet her own professors and colleagues at the University of Texas Department of Art ignored her. Here she was, included in the collections of the best museums in the country, and the university thought she was crazy. Delay followed delay when Letitia tried getting her instructors to fire those ceramics in their kilns. Finally, she plugged her own kiln into their wall socket and fired her own pieces. So much for the art department. While their mouths were collectively agape, Letitia took the advice of the director of the Cleveland Museum: “Just get out of that place. And take your kiln.” She did.

When Letitia decided to go to New York she contacted her patroness from the Cleveland Museum. The patroness was pleased to find out how well Letitia connected with the connections. It’s just not easy, connected or unconnected, to show your work at the Trustee Room of the Museum of Modern Art to the most prestigious people in dance, art, art patronage, art dealing, and museum direction. Riding the elevator to the room Letitia passed her competition: Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight,” Rousseau’s “Sleeping Gypsy,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” Nevelson’s “Collages,” Pollack’s “Action Paintings,” along with the more contemporary work of Rauchenberg, Dine, Oldenberg, and Vassarelli. And that’s only the inside. In the Sculpture Garden is the wide-hipped Henry Moore woman, Rodin’s “Balzac” and the corner that used to house Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome a good 15 years before The Whole Earth Catalogue discovered it.

The trustees in the room are not quite used to seeing urges, movements, and intuitions made concrete in the form of metaphors and ceramic sculpture. None of them knew quite what to expect from her, but that’s what’s so exhilarating about the Trustee Room. On the periphery of Letitia’s actions the hushed jingle of moneyed voices communed within the sacristy of modern art. “She looks like a cross between a cowgirl and a beautician.” And “Well, she’s already in the private collections of the Carter, Cleveland, and Guggenheim.” And “God, I’d give her $14,000 just to know how she gets those glazes.” The New York unspeakable in search of the Texas uneatable. If only they knew how simple and inexpensive were the secrets of her art. Better to let them wonder.

And Letitia let them wonder. And Letitia got their support. Money, which is not only the mother’s milk of politics, but also of art and theater, came to her. Big names were now suddenly accessible. She’s modest about her accomplishment. “Anyone who wanted could’ve done the same thing. Somehow, the people who backed out couldn’t maintain the output. Man, that’s the system, if it’s gonna work it doesn’t have an infirmary.” So that’s how Letitia built her kingdom. Very simple, but few people do it.

An audience in the Trustee Room would be sufficient for most, but not for Letitia. She also managed a showing at La Mama, which is not easy either. La Mama, a private subscription theater, launched a number of important avante-garde playwrights such as Paul Foster, Sam Shepard, Jean Claude van Itallie, Rochelle Owens, and Lanford Wilson. Ellen Stewart, the fabled Mama of La Mama, manages to keep her theater going by sheer energy. In the past she sewed and designed dresses by day and mothered and encouraged playwrights by night. She hasn’t changed, but her fame and legendary support are harder to reach these days. Ellen Stewart’s theater is booked solidly into 1975.

Yet that didn’t phaze Letitia. A member of the crew for the current hit Pippin IV who happened to be living in Hell’s Kitchen had Ellen Stewart’s unlisted number. To the head of La Mama, Letitia must have sounded like John Connally, Black Mountain College, Picasso, and Jarry all rolled into one. Ellen asked her to come over immediately. They met, talked, and hit it off immediately. Ellen personally took care of Letitia, promised her a space, and gave her money, not for 1975, but for June, 1973. She also advised Letitia to return to Austin to polish her play and finish her masks. She did.

It was only upon arrival in Austin that Letitia found out just who Ellen Stewart and La Mama were. She didn’t know that she was getting special treatment from Ellen. “I thought it was like getting a space to show your work in Armadillo World Headquarters.” Now she knows, because everyone keeps telling her. But she just keeps on working so that she can return to New York, present her premiere at La Mama, then let the International Arts Council, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Wadsworth Atheneum have their crack at her play.

Letitia succeeded where so many before her have failed. She ran the obvious risk of slipping off to the ragged edges of the many disciplines and sources from which she drew. And she overcame the foul dust that preys on the talents of young artists seeking recognition in New York.

Just as she welds verbal, visual, and physical imagery in her play she also fuses her talent to a relentless ability to work. She, however, assumes that anyone could have done the same thing. “It’s easy. In a sense, the second you start to assume control of your own life you’ve got it. Just imagine what it was probably like for her Majesty, the First Queen, whoever she was. All she did was assume control of her own life and act like she had it together. Then everybody came around with their disorder so she put everything back together again. Then there was a kingdom, knights, serfs, and what all.” That’s her secret.

Now that you know it find the time to watch her create her own kingdom out of the artistic disorder around her. Just like Her Majesty, the First Queen.

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