Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, I have with me artist, 

Paula Stern. Thank you for joining me today. 

 

Paula Stern: 

It's a pleasure. Happy to meet you. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes. Good to meet you, even if remotely, and someday, hopefully, in person. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Well, I've heard so much about you and I feel like I've become a member of the Portland Art Gallery extended family. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I know that we feel the same way about you and it's wonderful because you're actually located out of state. So having the opportunity to connect you this way is pretty special. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Amen. I agree. Well, I'll be coming back up to Maine next week and I get there as much as I can. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Excellent. You do actually have a Maine connection, in fact, you've lent us your daughter. 

 

Paula Stern:

Yes. We should spell Maine without and without an E in this case because my daughter is very special and her family is growing and I want to be in Maine full time. I try to come up very frequently. She is a very active practicing pediatrician and she needs some help from her Nona, which is grandma for her kids. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I'm glad you're able to do that. I know I appreciated that when my kids were growing up and my parents' involvement, and I think it has led to a very close relationship, 

 

Paula Stern:

There is ever enough time. I absolutely recognize that they're not my only grandchildren. I have two in Manhattan as well who came ahead of my two little boys in Maine. I wish I could transport myself daily there. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So that's where your son is living?  In Manhattan? 

 

Paula Stern:

He is. And I guess in this day and age everybody's a little peripatetic. My  daughter in law, my son's wife, is from Italy. So their children know no national borders and they're really traveling all the time both in terms of language and, and just mentality. And it's a wonderful world, despite the fact that we're talking at a really tough time in history. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And you're currently located in Virginia.

 

Paula Stern:

I'm right in Washington, DC. I'm near the National Cathedral, the zoo. I'm 10 minutes from the White House. And Washington has been our home for  pretty much my entire working career. The kids were raised here and we were just talking, my daughter and I, yesterday that there's a new book out that kind of says, you know, Washington is not just the swamp.  People came here and still do because they're drawn here by the public service and the desire to do public service. And, um I think I'm part of that in my family. My brother preceded me here. He was a civil rights lawyer in the, when it was really tough times and sent back to our home in the south. I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee and  came up north for a study and public service. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about your background, not as an artist. I know we know you through the Portland Art Gallery as a sculptor, but your background not as an artist is equally as impressive. 

 

Paula Stern:

Well, thank you. I was very lucky because my parents prepared me not only as an artist and a dancer, but intellectually to care about the rest of the world. And if you will try to make a better place for our community and our kids' futures. And I ended up after graduating from public school in Memphis going to college in the Baltimore area, Goucher College, it was a woman's college at the time.  I'm of that generation where not only was there segregation when it came to Jim Crow laws, but very much segregation when it came to the choices of colleges and universities I could attend. And I was lucky enough to go to a women's college which I think encouraged me and gave me even greater confidence and ended up at Harvard in graduate school. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Then I got my PhD at Fletcher school which is Tufts University jointly administered by Harvard and Tufts, and had a journalism career at the same time I was doing journalism writing starting back in college, worked at the New Republic and the Atlantic monthly published there.  Some of my proudest – that I'm most proud of articles were on women. Womanly image, character assassination through the ages, kind of a polemics if you will, trying to push the barriers. And I went off as a journalist as a young, mid twenties to the middle east traveling all alone writing. I ended up coming back and, and deciding with my husband that Washington was the best place for us both to be doing our professional lives. 

 

Paula Stern:

So I worked on the hill as a Senate legislative assistant to a wonderful terrific gentleman, who was the father of Gaylor Nelson, Senator Gaylor Nelson, and actually did some of the very first work on the issues of arm sales and the concern that I had ultimately for the Congress that law got passed. It said that major arm sales should be reported to Congress before they get out of here and go become enmeshed in our foreign policy and our commitments overseas. And that took me, basically, to the Carter administration's attention because that was one of his issues that he ran on along with human rights and foreign policy that I was also writing books about. And I was appointed very young to be a commissioner at the US international trade commission and ended up chairing it there. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And it was a 10 year assignment and Ronald Reagan by then was in, and I was pointed by him to be the chair of the international trade commission, which at that time, when he was in, made me the second highest ranking woman in the government. So you know, hit some glass ceilings, got through some, I won't tell you about the times that I didn't get through, but I keep persisting. And at the time that I was doing all of that, I was also sculpting and I kind of made that a secret because I didn't think I'd be considered, you know, I don't know, professional enough if I also had this artistic side. But the time came after 9/11 that I wanted to cast many of my terracotta works in bronze. 

 

Paula Stern: 

I wanted something that when I saw those buildings come down, I just, somehow I remembered there was a clip from the New York Times of a remnant of a foot. I think it was a Degas that had been in one of the office buildings that came through the disaster and because it has been cast in bronze. And I said, I had a friend who had a foundry and I said, I'm going to start casting then. And that then made me want to, um come out, if you will, publicly as an artist. I wanted to cover my costs of the investment in the casting, and then demonstrate with all the requirements that sometimes are needed you know, to have that dual professional credentials. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So I understand that even your husband at the time didn't know that you had begun sculpting, is that right? 

 

Paula Stern: 

No, that's absolutely correct. You're absolutely right. It was really quite hilarious because all through college, and graduate school, and my journalism, and the first five years of our marriage, when we were both working on the hill, um I did not sculpt. And it came the time that once I became pregnant and then gave birth to our first child at Gabriel, I had the opportunity to quote, “stay home and get my dissertation ready for the book that I published,” Water's Edge Domestic Politicians Shaping American Foreign Policy. And while I was home the first thing I did besides nursing our son, our baby son, Gabriel, is that I went out and bought clay and I had no model. All I had was the mirror, and I basically would observe myself nursing our son in front of the mirror. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And so my first sculpture with that clay was this little piece. And Paul came home and saw what I was doing. He is still going to the office and he was just stunned. He had no idea, but I hadn't stopped since, and my son is now 40 something years old. That was the – and Paul has been incredibly supportive, my husband, of all of my work, not only just helping me carry stuff, but he'll tell me sometimes: Paula you're finished with that piece. Cause sometimes, you know, I'm always trying to get my hands back on something as long as it's still wet. And,  if it's terracotta.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

You've had pieces that are displayed really at very prominent places, businesses, schools you've done pieces, I think, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton. How have you had that type of access? It's really quite –

 

Paula Stern: 

Well, the Bill Clinton story. President Clinton, our family has known him since the time he was the governor down in Arkansas. And so he and his family, we've grown up, you know, the kids grew up together and when they moved to the White House you know, that meant that my son and Chelsea. I watched her grow up and they would come over. She would come over here as a matter of fact. And they would play in the clay. And I still have pieces, actually. I just thought of that upstairs, because they're beautiful that they did together with my clay, I guess. And so, that kind of explains that story and the Mandela was one that I did really thanks to a commission from a school in South Carolina on wood prep school. They have this beautiful garden and by the way, I think sculptures, you know, you should think outdoors as well as indoors. 

 

Paula Stern: 

I love to put my work in nature and have it talk, you know, to nature.  And they have this garden of the great or the righteous. It's just an homage to different, wonderful people in history and they wanted a Mandela. And so I was contacted and did it. I did not have the honor of meeting Mandela. I did have a lot of photos of course throughout his life, which makes things complicated because you have to choose as an artist. What is the expression? What is the age? What is it that you're trying to express as well as getting a likeness? And, um one of my very dear friends gave me a lot of photos that she had taken because she had had the honor of meeting with him. And so that's, that explains the Mandela if you will. And then I’ve done a friend who was a federal judge years ago. He was a very young federal judge and he wanted to have a piece for posterity. And we did that over an extremely hot, long weekend here in Washington, DC when he came down with his family and they went off and, but he, and I just worked together to get the piece of Mark Wolf, who was the federal judge now in a retired status in Massachusetts. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And do I understand that you also have a special connection with another very famous Supreme court judge that recently passed 

 

Paula Stern: 

Oh, the RBG, that's a crazy story.  Yes, I had, you know, I had met her and again, I've been extremely fortunate and to be in a position to meet and know people and see them personally and meet them and some, you know, become friends in some cases with them. But what happened with the RBG really is thanks to the Portland Art Gallery.  I had done a piece which I called Ruth. It's in the other room. And it’s a lovely piece, a full figure. And these pieces, I don't name all, you know, ahead of time. I, don't kind of with exception, of course, busts and portraits, you know, I just do. And then they speak to me and then I name them. 

 

Paula Stern:

So this one spoke to me. I said, this looks like a semetic young woman. This is Ruth. This is Ruth from the Bible. And she's gleaning the wheat as you read about in the Bible. And she and the head fell off. So I said, well, I love this head. I'm going to cast it separately, just the head. So I had something called “Ruth a study”. So a study means that, you know, it's one part of a body, or it's, you know, it's a study for a bigger piece. And I had a cast in bronze and it was in the gallery at Portland Art Gallery and Missy at the gallery one of your wonderful artists there Missy Dunaway apparently loved it and because it was Ruth's study. And I think it was a time at the time when, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just passed away and she interpreted it, I say, as it being Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And I love the fact as an artist, which, and a wonderful artist that she is, that she wanted to buy that piece for herself. but she thought it was RBG. So then that gave me the idea. Okay, I see that she is semetic and there is no doubt about that and has this character that inspired me to think of her as a biblical character. I had, we have little glasses now and put a kind of a, I'd forgotten the word they use for the, like a necklace that the female Supreme court justices have adapted for their robe around their neck. And we now have that piece called RBG. It's a kind of a separate item from Ruth, a long story. I'm sorry. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I love that you have so many different types of connections in so many different areas. I mean, in our very short conversation, you've talked about foreign policy. You've talked about connections with presidents, you've talked about Maine, and it seems like you draw inspiration from multiple different sources. 

 

Paula Stern:

I do. I do. I don't like silos. You know, there are people who say, you know, I'm a medical doctor, and I can only tell you about this specialty that I have, which to your ears. And that's just not me. And as far as I'm concerned, life is just filled with intersections and I love to connect them. I love to connect people and I love to connect ideas and, um  with sculpting back to the point, you know, I am relating to history. I am relating to all those mostly male sculptors who came before me, but I am putting my personal mark and I want to leave a legacy. So I really appreciate history. When it comes to society, I mean, I think we have a responsibility to think, not only about ourselves and our kids and our grandkids, but our neighbors and our greater society, and even more now in this tech digital world that we live in. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And so, I just groove on new ideas and new inputs and making connections. That's my forte. I connect and I see connections with people who just don't see it. And sometimes, particularly as a female, you're not taken seriously because of that. You're supposed to kind of stay in your, not your groove, but in your category and, you know, get those credentials. And I paid the price on those things. I did. I got my credentials from an academic point of view, I got my credentials from, you know, my policy world point of view. I've got my credentials from my artistic point of view, but it's the connections, that's where the creation comes. That's where your personal contribution goes to everyone else. And, um you know, I'm very proud when people say to me, Paula, I just love the question you ask. I never would've thought about that. And I like coming outta left field, as they say. And doing that. And so, yeah, thank you for, you know, pressing that button with me because I think that's, I'm proud of that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I can absolutely relate. I know that as a family medicine doctor, we have to be kind of, as I typically say, kind of horizontal and vertical, we have to always be thinking about things as I know that your daughter does as a pediatrician.  Kind of not only focused on the individual, the family, the community, you know, education, health, all the intersections. So I think you and I have similar mindsets in that area. 

 

Paula Stern: 

That's so, I'm so happy to hear you say that and I can't wait to introduce you. And again, as I said, I love making the personal connections too. I feel like I'm like one of those old fashioned telephone, the operators, I don't know if you remember, you're too young, but there was a Lily Tomlin skit where she was an operator with the, the headphones, and she's pressing pulling in the, in and out of the buttons and the wires to connect people. And she's saying Mr. Veto, Mr. Veto, that was the famous author at the time, but she was making those telephone connections and I love to get people together and have them riff off each other and learn from each other. And I think it's a little bit of my southerness too.  That I like to make those personal connections. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And of course, there's this famous thing about Jewish geography when Jewish people or not Jewish  basically start talking, you're from that town, do you know so, and so? It’s not just the town in, and you're here in the United States, it's the town from which you came. I wanna say something about our American community and I really have to, because we are at a moment right now where we're pulling in intellectually, emotionally, politically and socially to what's going on in Ukraine.  We here in America, we are a nation of immigrants. And if you don't appreciate how much that shapes our American psyche, no matter what state we're from or political you know, party we might associate with or be associated with, we are coming from somewhere else. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And so we, as a nation, are always going to be all interested, concerned, telling people what they ought to be doing in other countries. And that, that was really the contribution I made in my academic work to explain that you can't understand our domestic politics, if you don't understand our foreign policy, if you don't understand those immigrant roots or those religious ties that we have. And that goes back to making those connections between and domestic, you know, between ourselves personally, and again, getting back to the art that's a universal desire to create. It's a universal desire and a personal one on my part. That I share with the universe to take my hands and tangibly try to shape something which gives an inspiration which is an intangible which tries to speak without using words to the viewer and communicate that way as well. 

 

Paula Stern: 

So it's interesting, we're communicating, thanks to, you know, the digitization of the world today, 2022. But we're talking about universal thoughts that go back forever. Yesterday. I was at a lecture with the ambassador of Norway. I was invited to go to hear about the Arctic and the melting of the Arctic and climate change. And we were talking about the study of hundreds of thousands of years ago here on earth and what we've gone through. And so I just think all of these things, I don't know, they relate inside my head and hopefully they come out in some way, you know, in our conversations and our connections verbally and also tangibly with the sculptures. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I don't wanna let you go before asking you about the piece that's behind me in the studio today, which is a dancer. And I'd like you to tell me a little bit about this. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Wow.  You are really indulging in total egotistical, I mean, anyhow.  So the dancer is the dancer. I have always danced and my parents, you know, I bless them and appreciate the fact that in Memphis, Tennessee, they made sure that their kids at every, everything they possibly could and that included the art school and dance. And so I started out as a Tumblr, as an Acrobat, and then attended ballet classical ballet classes. I was the youngest member of the Memphis Civic Ballet, but my mother made it very clear I was going to college. And so ballet was not going to be my career. And it continues to be my love, my passion among others. And I'm happy to say that my granddaughter is who's now 14 has been at the School of the American Ballet you know, of the New York city ballet, and I'm kind living vicariously of course, through her. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And, the piece that you're talking about I did without a model, and it's very, very hard, you know, it's very hard because, you wanna get the anatomy right. You wanna get the feelings, right. But you know, the whole idea of trying to defy gravity which is what ballet does, and still deal with the engineering realities that you've got to have a piece that's gonna stand up physically in your home or garden is a challenge. And I had to use mirrors and basically contort myself every once in a while, you know, because the pieces, you can see she's in a, you know, an arabesque, but in attitude is what it's called when your knee is bent and it's in the back and she's on one foot. 

 

Paula Stern: 

And so talk about acrobats. I was, you know, in my studio, you're doing a little bit of that. And you know, I would take pictures of ballerinas and try to use that, but it's not the same as having a model, but so that's the piece. And then I had this idea after doing it. It was a little much related to this piece which is Jeune fille avec Chapeau Fleuri après Rodin, and where the, I decided after I had done the piece that she needed to be wearing something, because she was sitting very prim and proper. And so I kind of came up with this idea of a hat.  I've never seen any bronze where, you know, you can take the hat off or on the same thing with the ballerina that you have. 

 

Paula Stern:

There's a little skirt that I made.  But you know, there's a snap there, you can take the skirt off just like you can take the hat off. And the skirt idea came from Degas that came from Degas, as you know, the, the little dancer, the famous little dancer with her arms behind her back standing in a wonderful pose that he, Degas, or somebody, there's both a skirt. And in her braid, her hair in the back there's cloth made almost like gauze, cheesecloth, ribbon in her hair, so that I kind of got that idea. And sometimes I like it with the skirt, and sometimes I like just to see the body and the anatomy without the skirt.  so it's just a long story. I hope it is not too long. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I'm enjoying all of your stories, and I know that people are going to want to see your pieces. So I hope that they are able to make the trip up to the Portland Art Gallery because in person, they're quite impressive. They're lovely also on the website, the Portland Art Gallery website, but in person they're impressive. And I can't tell you how many times I've actually gone into the gallery myself and said, oh, look at this. It's wonderful. Oh, look at this. That's wonderful. And so I've appreciated the time that I've had to talk to you today about the work that you do and actually meet the person behind the work. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Well, I appreciate the time meeting you too. And I realize since I talked about this piece, and I didn't mention this one, which is Genevieve, who we've been talking about at the beginning about the doctor, this is the doctor as a child. That's when I didn't have models, my kids were,I submitted them to the requirement of sitting still enough to do that. So this is the doctor I was talking about earlier.  So thank you. And I agree with you when I come to that Portland Art Gallery, I just love seeing my fellow artists and all of their beautiful creations in a gorgeous setting. And thank you for your considered hospitality every time I go in. It's a treat. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, thank you for telling me that your daughter has been watching over our conversation because now you've enabled me to make that additional connection. So when I actually meet her in person, I'll say I've seen you before, just in a slightly different form. 

 

Paula Stern: 

Amen. That's perfect. I haven't seen you before yet. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking today with artist Paula Stern. And as I've mentioned, you can go to the Portland Art Gallery to see her work or go to the Portland Art Gallery website. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle. You've been listening to, or watching, Radio Maine today with artist Paula Stern. Thank you for coming into my virtual space. 

 

Paula Stern:

Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure, I hope to see you soon in person.