when pictures fail me…
Forty-five minutes north of Manhattan, in an industrial warehouse on the Hudson River waterfront, Noah Baumwoll is turning sheet metal into spiritual art like you’ve never seen. On any given day, the thirty-eight year-old is creating one of a series of life-size wall sculptures—Shiva or Kali or another deity—or welding a small temple altar, or a scene depicting the sacred Indian mountain Arunachala. His personal stamp is that, no matter the subject, a vibrant personality is released that spans and connects world cultures.
YogaCityNYC’s Sharon Watts visited the sculptor’s studio recently to learn more about Noah’s creative process and passions.
Sharon Watts: Your sculptures have such wonderful personality and color. What are your strongest influences?
Noah Baumwoll: My first sculpting experience was when I was eight years old—I took a ceramic class after school in Greenwich Village. Growing up, I was surrounded by characters and creative people and music from all backgrounds and cultures. That inspired me to sculpt figures actively engaged with life: playing instruments and dancing. I also have absorbed the vibrancy and color of the devotional art of India, and have been traveling there every year since 2006.
SW: What ignited this interest in depicting the Hindu deities?
NB: I began to meditate at the age of nine, when my mother, who is also an artist, took me to a meditation and satsang that left a very strong impression on me. As I got older, I discovered reggae and felt the powerful connection between music and spirituality, focusing on song lyrics taken directly from the Torah. That led me to a desire to rediscover my Jewish roots. I connected with a rabbi who was a follower of eastern spirituality and recognized me as a fellow seeker. He invited me to accompany him to India, where—while chanting on the banks of the sacred Ganges river—I had the experience of “coming home.” That was also the first time I ever did any yoga.
As my love of bhakti yoga grew, it was a natural progression to make my own interpretations of the Gods. Usually they are depicted in a very similar and prescribed way, but I see them all as unique and individual expressions of our highest Selves, to be portrayed with very distinct personalities.
I first decided to create a sculpture of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, appropriately, as this was a whole new undertaking for me. That was the beginning of the “Big God” series.
SW: Eastern deities have been depicted for thousands of years, but not in fabricated steel. How do you work?
NB: I use a lot of sheet metal that is scattered across my table, hammering and welding it together using a MIG, fusing the metal on contact. I cut the steel with a plasma cutter, which goes through metal like a laser beam. After welding, I sometimes give the appearance of age by painting liquid copper or bronze onto the steel, and spray patina on top for the greenish and bluish oxidation coloring. I also like to grind the surface to give it a shine, and add vibrant color using solvent dye.
SW: How does it feel to immerse yourself into the elements?
NB: It felt very primal for me to work with fire and metal. I tend to go into a deep meditation and enter into a feeling of flow, automatically knowing the next right thing to do. The Gods evolve spontaneously, and hours go by without my realizing it.
SW: Your sculpture is all singular and unique, yet the nature of deity art is that is should be available to the masses. Do you ever consider this?
NB: I do like the idea of my art being available to everyone, regardless of budget. My larger sculptures can take months to complete, so I have been selling photo reproductions of them, and have sold one original Big God deity now residing in Greenwich Village. I also create handmade linoleum block prints, also for sale on my website’s Shop page. I have been flirting with the idea of breaking my process into parts that can be recreated, perhaps setting up a shop and working with a team of artists in India.
SW: After all the creative and meditative energy poured into your work, what is its message?
NB: It gives me great joy to see my work in people’s homes, knowing it is being loved and appreciated. They certainly are like my children, and eventually is time to leave the nest and lead their own lives.
My vision for my deity sculptures is to convert a gallery or other public space into a temple environment. This exhibition would be a fully immersive experience for all the senses. Each deity would have its own wall and altar to receive public offerings and puja. Incense would fill the air, prasad or blessed food and chai would be available—all to the sound of chanting. There would be kirtan and satsang, with yoga offered as well. I would very much like these creations to have the opportunity interact with the world and inspire a feeling of devotion.
No matter what names we call the divine by in any religion or tradition, ultimately I feel there is one pure consciousness that exists and takes on all forms. I try to infuse all of my work with a soulful, conscious quality that is instantly relatable and disarming, allowing the viewer to make a more personal connection. Hopefully they will see something of themselves within this oneness that we are all a part of.
SW: I went to your opening at the Land Yoga Art Gallery in Harlem, which showcases your smaller pieces. The temple altars spoke to me, with their invitation to add personal sacred objects. Prints of your large deities are on display, but to see them in the “metal flesh” is incomparable. Where else can people see, and buy, your work?
NB: I welcome anyone to come visit my studio in Ossining. My work is available for purchase and I also take commissions.
Noah’s work is at the Land Yoga Art Gallery in Harlem, through September. Galley is open Monday-Friday 6-11am & 5:30-7:30pm
Also by appointment (212) 866-5263