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Crystal Balls, Pixels, & Transporters: Artist Devorah Sperber by Ross Rice

Devorah Sperber is neither a professional tailor, seamstress, or costume designer. She doesn’t manufacture any kind of apparel, nor does she work with textiles or fabrics. Yet she is personally one of the top ten users of thread in the world, and she even has a sponsorship deal with threadmakers Coats & Clark. And, here’s the best part: the thread never leaves the spools.

Meanwhile, her unique vision and body of work has been getting progressively more attention in the art world, with a breakthrough show (and New York Times review) at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, and since then almost constant activity leading up to the coming year’s schedule, which includes solo shows in Paris, Milan, Roanoke, Knoxville, and Boise. Things are a bit hectic these days, but Devorah had a little time one weekday afternoon, so we met at her studio space, tucked inside the warehouse owned and operated by Woodstock Chimes.

Which are exactly what we hear outside, while walking from the car to the entrance: long clotheslines of hanging chimes tingling and tinkling in a prolonged breeze, a beautiful, sustained cacophony. Sounding very much like the dingley transporter sound on Star Trek, though maybe just a little more metallic.

Which is doubly odd, because walking into Devorah’s studio—after a warm welcome—the first thing you notice is three ’70s-style beaded curtains, suspended in mid-air. Step back one step and you see Kirk, Spock, and Bones in the beads—shimmering with a slightly haloed outline. Like they’re standing in the transporter thingy. Interesting, Captain.

But the main thing you notice once you’ve had a good look around are the thread spool works, some finished, others in progress. At close quarters, you see the pieces very much in the abstract: chains of thread spools of many different colors and neutrals, hung in a grid-like fashion. Each spool is very clearly representative of a pixel, and you become aware that there are shapes and vaguely recognizable patterns apparent in the grids. The reflective sheen of the thread combined with the vibrancy and contrast of the colors draws the eye as well; the overall image has a balance and purpose.

Devorah brings over a glass ball on a thin metal stand, about 4 ½ feet high, and places it directly about four feet in front of the work. The original recognizable image emerges within, inverted, in this case a work by Monet. At this point you realize the actual work is—technically—upside-down. It’s a cool gee-whiz moment, seeing the image right-side up in what seems like a mini-crystal ball. The photographs I’ve seen online display the phenomenon adequately, but it works better seeing it in person.

It took awhile before Devorah found her signature pixelated style. Born in Detroit, she grew up outside of Denver, and studied graphic design at the Colorado Institute of Art. But she found herself wanting to learn her own way, at her own accelerated pace. “Knowledge helps. I don’t know if formal education helps or hinders. I think it’s easier to follow the trend of the moment if you’re at a school, especially if the teachers are into a particular thing, but the development of something unique to me probably came from the fact that I didn’t go to a traditional school.”

She started as a sculptor while in Colorado, working with stone. “One of the benefits was that it brought up all of my issues of: you can’t go back. Once a chip is gone, it’s gone. So any issue that you have about fear of failure or uncertainty, or the inability to make a decision like BOOM, were right up against my face for ten years. And as a result, I became really aware of what my unconscious thoughts are doing when I’m experiencing different emotional states.” Mistakes had to become, by necessity, opportunities in stonework. “It was good training in attitudinal adjustment,” she chuckles.

After a time in Northern California, she ended up in New York, and at one point, while transferring slides of her sculptures to the digital format stored on CD, she had a moment of epiphany. “I remember the first time I looked at one of my stone sculptures on the monitor, and just was so blown away. I thought: what does that mean for sculpture that’s about material and mass and volume and weight? To have digital nothingness. That was probably the beginning of my asking myself: as a sculptor, how do you deal with nothingness?”

Then, seeing the Chuck Close retrospective at MOMA helped her see where to start. “Even though it really wasn’t digitally inspired. People think it has something to do with the ‘pixel,’ but actually it has to do with the degradation of printing blocks. But, seeing those things that looked like pixels to me, I really was inspired by that. I left there committed to finding my own unique voice.”

On the search for a physical representation agent for the “pixels,” Devorah found herself making lists of possible mediums to achieve the vision. Color range and intensity were important. Ubiquity in shape and size, and ready availability. Not too expensive. Thread spools quickly found themselves at the top of the list, meeting all criteria. Three hundred and two colors were available, which would prove to be plenty.

Her first attempt required blowing up sections of the target image, and selecting thread colors by eye. This proved to be very time consuming, and after three months. “It came out like a wall-sized ‘70s poster of nature, less realistic. I was probably bumping up every color!” She knew she was onto something though, and had a computer program designed especially for her by a friend, which now assigns the proper pixel colors to their thread spool numbers, and print out charts designating their positions on the chains, greatly simplifying the assembly process.

At this point, the viewing sphere enters the picture… as a happy accident. Devorah had an early installation in a small New York gallery “about 200 square feet, with a 6 x 10 foot piece! I was standing out in the hall squinting, but I was still way too close, and I couldn’t see if it was working. There were some binoculars in the studio, so I flipped them around, and I literally went WOW!” She was admittedly trying more for the Chuck Close effect, where the image would appear as the viewer moved back away from the work, becoming more abstract as one got closer. But the sphere opened up—in a cool way—the idea about how “scale-based reality is.”

Even early on, Devorah made her mind up to stick with familiar iconic images to exhibit via her process. It’s integral to her work that the original is something recognizable and resonant to those who will be seeing it. It’s very much about transforming the recognizable to the unrecognizable, and then back again—and being an active participant in the translation. Not unlike the aforementioned Star Trek transporter.

So, she selected well known works as her long-range Art Historical Reference series; works by Vermeer, Renoir, Grant Wood, as well as arguably the best-known work of all time: the Mona Lisa, of course. Devorah incorporates little known facts into her work, in the Mona Lisa’s case recreating her version at actual size, which is much smaller than most tend to realize. She also incorporates the natural curve of the glass to recreate the elusive smile, which generally can only be seen on the real painting using peripheral vision.

She also takes some necessary aesthetic liberties. “On every piece, I look very carefully at what the computer assigns for colors. It generally assigns much drabber colors than I like to use. Like, the Mona Lisa would translate into olive greens and yellows…the colors are very blasé with lots of black. So what I do is push a bunch of colors in.”

“I did a lot of manipulation because I want the piece to be appealing in the abstraction, [so] that if you never looked in the viewing sphere . . . I would want people to feel that they were looking at something complete, which is part of the reason it’s surprising when you see it through the sphere.”

One earlier project had her doing a Jackson Pollack work in 165,000 chenille stems. She remembered the first time she stood in front of the Pollack and in spite of its seemingly random series of splatters, she was getting SOMETHING from it. Later computer-based research that analyzed the layers of paint revealed fractal patterns in his works, similar to those found in nature and higher mathematics. This further confirmed to her: art and technology could be symbiotic in a natural way.

The Star Trek series came out of a different need. “Well, I got really into the Next Generation series after 9/11. My husband and I had an apartment in the West Village, and we saw the whole thing live. It was really frightening—crazy. No one knew what was going to happen to New York. At the time, I didn’t realize why I became fixated on Next Generation. It offered a utopian view of different species getting along. If there were issues with a new species, it was always misunderstandings that could be worked out.”

But did that justify a full-scale work? Talking to a good friend and gallery owner made her realize she “needed to find some meat here. ‘Cause I’m not going to do it based on ‘I like Star Trek.’” Watching episodes of the original show, she was particularly drawn to episodes where there was a parallel universe. “I thought: that’s it! That’s that same subjective reality thing that my work is into.”

Others agreed; Microsoft actually purchased several pieces for their welcome center, including her version of the Next Generation holodeck. It should be made clear, however, that she’s a far cry from the obsessive “Trekkie” type, who might earn a stern rebuke from William Shatner.

There’s a lot going on in Devorah’s world right now, going back and forth between Woodstock and the West Village. Her husband, allergist Bruce Dobozin, has offices in both locations, and her newfound passion for dog agility training with her dog Jake has become a major part of her life, helping her work off nervous energy and stress. Exhibition preparations require assistants, lots of assembling and packing to be done. Lately she’s been considering a new format to work in, different images and icons to explore—dead rock stars being one temptation. “Where I’m at is where I’ve been since I started making art, which is in motion. As long as every year is different than the year before—I wouldn’t want to be stagnant. Every year has gotten better, which is pretty cool. But I don’t know that I’m going to be upset if things unravel.”—R

Visit: for additional images and information about upcoming exhibitions.

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