Norman Ersting’s ceramic sculpture on view at Edgewater Gallery
For most of his career, Norman Ernsting was a puppeteer in New York City entertaining 300 or more children 100 days a year at the Museum of the American Indian — a gig in which he also created all the sets and carved all the puppets. Today, now 79 and spending his summers in Charlotte, Vt., Ernsting uses those skills as a ceramic sculptor focusing on ancient civilizations.
His journey from puppeteer to sculptor was anything but smooth and straightforward.
“My first experience with ceramic sculpture was a disaster,” Ernsting recalled. “In high school art class I sculpted a solid clay bust of my brother that exploded in the kiln. Ceramic pieces have to be hollow before being fired. I began to learn from my mistakes.”
That learning process took him to the Kansas City Art institute in the 1950s, where he took courses in figure drawing and ceramics. He went on to study with sculptor Bernard Frazier at Kansas University in Lawrence. After graduating, he traveled through Europe visiting museums and was inspired by the works of Jean Arp, Ernst Barlach and Henry Moore. While serving with the U.S. armed services in Germany, he was able to take art classes at the Art Institute in Berlin and began to seriously focus on ceramic sculpture.
But being a sculptor wasn’t yet in the cards.
A 44-year career as a puppeteer in New York City came first.
Ernsting grew up in Kansas, and later studied economics at Kansas University, but spent most of his time in the clay studio, he says. “Economics helped me learn to run a good puppet show with only two people,” in a nod to his pragmatic education, though clearly his passion was in art.
During those years, Ernsting ran an 18th-century style “Punch and Judy” show. His puppets, which he carved himself, were modeled after the first printed scripts, written by John Payne Collier and Italian illustrator George Cruikshank in 1827. Ernsting began at the Italian Street Festival in Greenwich Village, and by the end of his career he had a booth in the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.
The show evolved to the Hudson River Museum and began to change with the times, adding in a bit of magic and fractured fairy tales. One of his most popular shows was “The Story of Jumping Mouse,” a Native American tale. That show led to a 33-year run from 1975-2008 with the Museum of the American Indian, where Ernsting did five different shows focusing on regional Native American tribes, 100 days a year, to school groups of 300-350 children. For each show, he created all the sets and carved all the puppets.
It was a unique career, he says, because the puppets (which were mostly animals) allowed his shows “to transcend all ethnicity and ages. They were very powerful that way. We could express the meaning (of life) and of searching for truth; of teaching stories through animals. It was part of my spiritual journey too.”
Summers were a time when the puppets were still, because school was out, which gave Ernsting time for studying ceramics, which has been his focus for almost 30 years. A lifelong learner, he studied with ceramicist Nancy Sclight in the 1980s in Mexico and recently studied with Connie Sherman at the Westchester Art Workshop in White Plains, N.Y. and Elsbeth Woody at the Clay Arts Center in Portchester, N.Y.
Today, each of his stoneware sculptures is handcrafted and treated with oxides and stains before being fired in a gas kiln. Sometimes Ernsting will add a coating of iron, copper or bronze, and through a chemical process that “ages” the sculpture, he creates an encrustation of the metal. The result is a patina with a time-weathered look ? like ancient relics of the past — which has helped his sculptures reach an audience from coast to coast.
His art, he says, is “inspired by the artifacts of ancient civilizations. By combining an interest in archaeology and ceramic sculpture, I try to create sensual forms that have a timeless appeal.”
He sculpts animals, anthropomorphic pots, goddess figures, amphorae, ceremonial vessels and abstract forms, always trying to communicate his “awe and reverence” for the ancient works of art that inspire him. Some evoke a strong sense of movement, while others capture the individual personalities of the animals and figures.
“I am inspired by ancient artists from all over the world,” he says. “I always wanted to own ancient pieces, but I could never afford it; so I tried making them myself. Now I have too many sculptures (he does 25-30 each winter in his home in Cold Spring, N.Y.), so I sell them at five or six different galleries” across the country, including at Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury.
Now that he is retired as a puppeteer, he continues to devote his artistic focus on ceramics. But in summers his free time is spent at his Charlotte home and sailing his beloved Marshall Catboat on Lake Champlain, remarking, ever so humbling, that he must be “one of the oldest sailors on the lake” — particularly in a boat that requires the real art of sailing a classic smaller rig.
And that, too, he says in his look of reverence, is a spiritual journey of another sort.
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