Sculptor Ruth A. Migdal still celebrating the female form at 90

Migdal’s latest sculpture is set to be unveiled Thursday on the Near North Side.

SHARE Sculptor Ruth A. Migdal still celebrating the female form at 90
Sculptor Ruth Aizuss Migdal in her studio in East Garfield Park. Her latest sculpture celebrates the female form while protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Sculptor Ruth Aizuss Migdal in her studio in East Garfield Park. Her latest sculpture celebrates the female form while protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

On a street of stark brick warehouses, where the air is grubby with Canadian wildfire smoke — made worse by the billowing dust from a nearby saw cutting into concrete — a woman with a cane emerges from a doorway framed with ivy.

She beckons for her guest to follow her inside.

“I don’t have any depth perception,” she says, explaining the need for the cane.

She leads the way along a dimly lit corridor, turns sharply and then into a high-ceilinged space that instantly overwhelms.

The walls, the shelves, tables are all covered with sculptures of the female body. Mostly, what you notice, though, are the breasts: hundreds of them — small, large, in wax, clay, bronze, glossy red, gold-leafed. In the center of a lunch table, there’s a pair made of solid lead and too heavy to lift.

They aren’t trophies. For Ruth Aizuss Migdal, their 90-year-old creator, they are symbols of feminine beauty, defiance, rage.

“They are absolutely voluptuous, but the point is, they are beautiful and they are powerful,” says Migdal, whose large pale blue eyes are ringed with turquoise eyeliner. “That’s very important because men do not look at women who are not beautiful.”

Why does she care what men think?

“Because they are powerful,” she says. “They run this world. Why do you think we are in such trouble?”

This week, Migdal, who lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood, was preparing to unveil her latest sculpture: a 22-foot-tall aluminum figure, a dozen or so strands sprouting from the top like seaweed caught in a tempest. The sculpture is on display in a courtyard at a new mixed-income development on the Near North Side. The strands are actually spears, says Migdal.

More about that later.

Ruth A. Migdal in front her newly installed sculpture at 869 W. Blackhawk St.

Ruth A. Migdal in front her newly installed sculpture “Red Tree Uprising” at 869 W. Blackhawk St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Almost 80 years after she saw a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago — she doesn’t remember which one — and decided that making art would be her life, she’s still melting and molding wax into models for sculptures that have appeared in public spaces across the city and the nation.

Migdal, who is Jewish and grew up in Lawndale, says her mother neglected her — a blessing because it allowed the girl the freedom to do as she wished, except during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On one such occasion, Midgal’s mother refused to let her attend a lecture at the Art Institute.

“I paid no attention to her,” Migdal says. “I finished my painting and I went to the Art Institute. That’s when I chose my religion.”

Migdal studied painting, not sculpting, and, by her own account, was a “very successful” painter for many years.

She switched to sculpture in the 1960s while she was teaching art at Malcolm X College and she got her hands on some clay. And in her hands, the clay swells into sensual, bold, sexual things.

“Sure they are sexual. I had a good sex drive, but in my day you did nothing about it,” she says.

On a tour of her studio, in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, she leads a guest between tables to a shelf cluttered with what are clearly male figures.

“They all have erections, you notice. I like men with erections,” she says without a hint of a blush. Migdal has been married twice, for the last 30 years to James A. Brown, a retired Northwestern University professor of archeology.

Migdal used to work in her studio every day, but is now there just twice a week. She’ll still spend four or five hours here, bent over a desk littered with scraps and slivers of wax. Other artists make bronze casts from the wax or cut, shape and weld the aluminum for the finished work.

There’s an electric frying pan near Migdal’s extremely cluttered desk for melting the wax. A big slab of dark brown wax lies on the desk, like a piece of ancient flesh discovered during the thawing of glacial ice.

The desk where Ruth A. Migdal shapes and melts wax forms for her sculptures.

The desk where Ruth A. Migdal shapes and melts wax forms for her sculptures.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“Well, I’m making flesh,” Migdal says, unsurprised at the comparison.

A little later, it’s over to Wendelin Park, the Near North Side housing project hosting her newest sculpture. The huge arm of a crane looms over the concrete paving where the piece is rising. The base is already bolted to the ground. The metal spears lie on the ground, gleaming in the hazy sunlight.

The protest piece is entitled: “Red Tree Uprising.”

“I’m very angry with what the [U.S.] Supreme Court did to women — I’m furious,” she said, referring to the 2022 decision to overturn Roe Vs. Wade.

But at 90 — 91 in August — isn’t it time to let someone else feel the rage?

“I don’t go around yelling at people,” she says, mildly irritated at the question. “I wanted to announce that it’s time to fight — by voting.”

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