The Shape of Things
Seventy years into a brilliant career, sculptor Isabel Case Borgatta ’43 still has a passion for taking a piece of stone and carving it into something beautiful
by Jane Falla
Isabel Case Borgatta ’43 remembers the moment well. One afternoon during her sophomore year at Smith, she was sitting in Neilson Library gazing out the window. Suddenly, the history major with a love of mythology and legends had a revelation: “I love it here, and I’m doing well and enjoying everything, but this is not what I want to be or what I want to do. I have to be a sculptor.”
Seventy years later—with a degree in sculpture from Yale, life as a wife and mother, and a teaching stint at the City College of New York behind her—she still gets excited at the thought of taking a piece of stone and shaping it into something beautiful and unique. Borgatta’s daily devotion to carving has brought her recognition as an award-winning sculptor who has exhibited around the world. She is the oldest working artist at Westbeth Artists’ Housing in New York City, a residential artist community that was once home to the likes of Diane Arbus, Merce Cunningham, and Joseph Chaikin. Offering work and living spaces, the former Bell Labs complex opened in 1970 as a haven for artists and their families in search of affordable housing.
Borgatta carves primarily in stone, often marble, which she admires for its tremendous variety in color. Shape and texture also play a role in her choice of stone. “Something about it has to feel simpatico, and if I respond to it I know I can make something with it,” she says. Her sculptures range from as small as eight inches to life-size.
Sculptures such as Jaguar Woman, Doña Luisa, and Fish-Cloaked Hero exemplify Borgatta’s penchant for combining images of humans with animals or birds, often with mythological undertones. Her latest piece, for a March 2012 exhibit at the Century Association in New York City, is a sculpture of a man carrying two cats. “I have a strong feeling about communication between the species and their symbiosis, which is a natural part of this world,” Borgatta says.
Borgatta has loved stone since she was 11, when she served as a gofer in the geology department of the US Treasury, where her father worked. At 13, she made her first official sculpture—a pioneer woman with her sleeves rolled up—to enter an Ivory soap contest, which garnered the budding sculptor the coveted $100 prize: “A lot of money in the middle of the Depression,” Borgatta remembers. “From there I started carving most any material I could.”
Her first show was in 1951 at, remarkably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was invited to exhibit in a survey of American sculpture. Since then, she has enjoyed a robust career full of awards and accolades from peers. Among her list of honors are the d’Orsay Prize from the National Association of Women Artists in 1952, and a 1960 award from famed abstract sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, whom Borgatta considered a mentor. In 1995, she was the first woman to receive the Alex J. Ettl Grant from the National Sculpture Society for her lifetime achievement. “One for the girls,” she quips.
Being an artist, wife, and mother wasn’t always easy. “Women were simply not expected to assert themselves in any way,” she says. “For many years I promoted my husband [Mexican painter Robert Borgatta] and just kept quiet about what I was doing. I think some of our friends and neighbors didn’t even know I was a sculptor.”
For contemporary women artists struggling to find balance, she advises: “Don’t give up. It’s hard, but if it’s important to you as a full human being to realize what you can do, just do it.”
That’s precisely what Borgatta continues to do. Despite struggling with Parkinson’s disease and recovering from an accident in which she broke both legs, she wakes up every morning thinking about her work and spends part of every day in her studio. “I’ve worked every day of my life,” Borgatta says with an inspiring blend of gratitude and humility. “I still love it.”