Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Creating “caviar” candy cocktail rings for a performance commissioned by La Prairie, July, 2022, NYC; Photo courtesy of Maayan Zilberman studio

Greetings Maayan Zilberman, it is a great pleasure to discuss the various facets of your creative brilliance. Having a rather prestigious formal education in the Ceramic arts, your works exist as individual objets d’art which emerge as crystalline facsimiles from handmade molds. If I may ask, what kind of ceramic work did you create before placing your attention upon this technique? And, in your view, are sculptures a more restrictive or expressive mode of artistic expression?

Thank you for having an appreciation for the detail in the work I do, like any artist – we are always pleased to be able to talk more in depth about practice, and especially when the person asking questions is sensitive to nuance. It’s rare…

It was a long time ago when I last worked with Ceramics, close to 30 years ago! I was just 15 when I began at Alfred (Upstate NY), I was the youngest kid in the program and I was obsessed with creating my own clays and glaze formulations. I loved the idea that you could mix up earth and other natural ingredients, bake it, and you would end up with something sculptural and permanent, and in my case – because our irigran offered such a vast array of rare materials, unique. I was never that interested in cooking or food, but as a child I had been fascinated by the transformation of ingredients… mixing dry and wet to bake a cake, I loved putting something away and coming back to find a new creation. There was something magical, optimistic, and therapeutic about this equation. Something about an unseen action, a mysterious morphing.

During the years when I made most of my ceramic work (early to late 90s), all of the work was hand-built, a lot of slab work and patching of seams, I never once made a pot on a wheel. First, I wasn’t strong enough, and second, the building of the work was always about an exchange with the material, feeling equal to it rather than trying to overpower it. Not to shade potters, but it’s a thing. I was always interested in the laws of kashrut (Koshering), and loved experimenting with materials as a means of “transforming an object’s spiritual being” not just its “chemical being”. I pigmented clay, would crush it up and refine it with heavy glazes, and in some cases I would bury fired sculptures in the ground with meats, fats, and other proteins so it would get a rainbow/smoke effect, or polish it as an homage to Native traditions of Blackware pottery. I learned a lot of techniques through the older female artists who mentored me, who brought their cultural art practices into our class and would share so generously. I felt some of my closest bonds in life with the women who taught me at that school.

It’s funny… when you look back at work you made as a student, or as a young adult, you don’t always take it seriously or let it carry weight, because you’re taught to view it as experimental, or just a means to getting into who you are as a “mature” artist. But I look back at that period in my art career with such wonder – I think my ideas were strong, I was fearless, and I feel most in tune these days when I go back to concepts I had touched on all those years ago. I would love to transport back to that headspace, be less commercial.

Sculpture can be restrictive for people who have a hard time experiencing the physical world, and I move in and out of that space… When I’m stuck in my head and only making drawings and 2 dimensional work, I know it’s time to kick myself out of it and make an object. I have been thinking lots about digital space and creating sculpture in a 4D world, something that feels so beyond comprehension. For someone fighting with the wall between 2D and 3D, it’s the ultimate leap.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Candy Cocktail Rings (inspired by Mr Rogers Neighborhood sets), 2020; Photo: Courtesy Maayan Zilberman / Sweet Saba

You hold a natural ebullient joy that translates through your originative output. You have confessed seeing candy as magical, or in ways forbidden, it being linked to youthful first pleasures. You have also spoke about your early introduction to the arts and your Saba as inspirational locus. With such in frame, what do you think it is about nostalgia’s impact on emotion that makes us treasure youthful experiences over other cherished types, even though we understand as adults the role naive- wonder plays within our memories? Is childhood really magical?

I’m happy to hear my energy translates! It’s what gives me the confidence to move through genres and categories, I have faith that the filter through which I see the world will push through and that it doesn’t quite matter the medium. Artists I love and admire all have strong points of view, you can see when they have touched anything, it’s just a language.

My Saba (my maternal grandfather) had a playful outlook that often masked a darker relationship with science and medicine, the combination resulting in fantasy. He was a doctor most of his life, and on weekends we used to make magic potions in his kitchen… a way of showing me chemical reactions, cause and affect, but also a bonding experience for us while we experimented as if we were children (we did this into my teen years). I hold onto these memories, not so much because they are nostalgic or childlike, but because I was more focused in those years, less to think about and more space in my head to go all-in on a creative experience.

The idea of magic is subjective, because magic implies a separation from “real” or “reason”. I would rather think about magic as a way to provoke imagination. Dreaming and magic as children are inherent but they are not naive. Dreaming is not naive, it’s hopeful and creative. And it’s vital. So is childhood magical? You would have to say it’s not real, and I think childhood is the time in life we are most real, most honest. We need magic as we age, as we get older we need more filters and layers of fantasy. We should redefine magic and aging.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Sculptures from solo show “SUGE” at Palevsky gallery in LA, 2016; Photo: Ilan Rubin for Furth Yashar

To me, the purposely indefinite nature of your sculpture seem a critique on meaning in culture. In discussions past you have expressed how the act of disappearance is something you prefer (speaking in the context or whether to collect your work or consume). Since your artifacts are often representations of beloved luxuries, through the process of consumption are you suggesting that experience per se, this is to say the emotional fulfilment from objects, become greater than their ownership? If so, how does consuming (becoming one with physically), and then viewing (becoming one with figuratively, this is to say mentally) differ in your view?

I started the practice of working with sugar as a response to my desire to get back into sculpture after working in fashion for a number of years. I had spent a decade designing and manufacturing lingerie under my own label then as a creative director for others, several times a year I was responsible for creating new designs that would be produced in (sometimes) the tens of thousands. It left me with a compulsion to want to touch work with my hands again, make things that could be one of a kind, nuanced, special. And as I started working at my home studio, and realizing that sugar was a sculptural medium that would not destroy my plumbing, my small scale sculptures took the form of a poem comprised of pieces that were cast from something deeply meaningful and/or heirlooms, and recreated as ephemeral objects.

I loved the recreation of items I would hung on to my whole life, suddenly edible, ingestible, forbidden, sexual. There was nothing cute nor childlike about this body of work, it was a grown up idea. I thought less about luxury as I did about importance, sentimentality, communal experience, and sensuality. The piece becoming part of you becomes equal to if not more essential to the experience of viewing it. I should also note that my more commercial work has been celebrated for its focus on luxury items, and I have been commissioned to recreate a lot of precious jewelry in sugar, but the more mundane items I have recreated (plates, pens, rulers, shoes, flash drives, etc) offer the strongest example of this exercise.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
“Jade” Candy in Lychee flavor – a collaboration with Humberto Leon of Chifa, February 2021; Inspired by his mothers prized Jade heirlooms, made larger than life for Chinese New Year.

You are a worldly creative who possesses expressive links to Pop Culture but also to higher codes of distinguishing refinements. To evoke discussion held within the renown art critic Greenberg’s famous essay, “Avante-Garde and Kitsch” what do you personally think separates one strata of art from its other? Do you feel that codes and striations in creative life are actual, or simply imagined? And, does blending different art breeds into unities create something truer seeing that our world is actually a mix of tastes, qualities, and ideas Thoughts?

I love this essay, and I’m happy to hear its reference! And thank you. Much of my internal struggle over the years has been in trying to differentiate from kitsch, as I moved away from the avant garde soon after graduating from art school (where in a 90s New York, Fashion was considered a 180 departure and thus frowned upon), and I allowed myself to be enveloped by the commercial side of the artistic world. I’d always thought I’d find my way back, but over time (thank you early Millenium artists) the lines between Art and Fashion became blurred, and it didn’t feel like the two were so siloed. I do believe they are separate, if only in intention.

As we melt into each others worlds more and more with new media, social, web3, etc., tastes and qualities ebb and flow and high-taste to one is garbaggio to another. I see and feel it daily when I check my phone and watch, delete, then re-download Tiktok. I drive myself insane, critiquing content (and mostly my own) over these newer standards of taste. But ultimately, if the intention is to speak to “concept” or “idea” and “thought”, I do believe it’s more about a higher code than it is about Kitsch. And it’s ok to play with both, because if we take ourselves too seriously then life gets reeeeeaaaallllly short.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Sculptures from solo show “SUGE” at Palevsky gallery in LA, 2016; Photo: Ilan Rubin for Furth Yashar

There are debates about the function of artists in our culture, some viewing themselves chiefly as business persons who don’t need to consider the ripple effects of their creations (they’re indifferent to societal movements), while others actively seek to shape culture, and by extension the world. Both views can exist as two ends of a shared continuum. My question becomes, what is your view on the role of artists in our time?

I loved Art School so much, I took 6 years to finish a BFA, and transferred to several schools just so I could take classes with artists I loved. I wasn’t so intent on “becoming” an artist, I felt like I’d been one my whole life, and I was finally getting a chance to be around like minded people. It was so exciting, spending time with grown ups (I was basically a kid at 15) who made work that would be out in the world, part of a conversation, part of a crucial dialogue of our time. It wasn’t so much “fame” I was interested in as a young artist, but the notion that your work would sit in the midst of your artistic contemporaries, that you would be a line in a very dynamic and exciting conversation, through your art, self expression.

I loved going to galleries on lunch break or on weekends, and seeing whose work was a response to the work we’d all witnessed the prior season (pre social media or cell phone cameras, and something I later found joy in within the Fashion world). I also devoured the critiques of (Peter Schjeldahl in The Voice, Roberta Smith in The Times on Fridays), and my own teacher at the time, Jerry Saltz, who would take us around in groups and listen intently as we’d give our own (often overly assured & naive) opinions. He always listened to me, and it gave me confidence to give big responses and to believe I was an artist who could do anything. If we look back at our teachers, and the relationships with the ones who got through to us, we have so much to be grateful for. I do.

I spent a long time after that period in my life just focusing on the bottom line, making a living, keeping businesses afloat, not really concerned with what an artists role is. Perhaps thats a luxury we’re afforded in college! Now that I have distanced myself from business, and focused more on my studio-based art practice, the notion of shaping culture, having a seat at the table, feels a bit more distant when I’m finding an individual voice again. It’s like a rebirth, and I need to make my way back to the grown-ups table.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Champagne flavored giant Medusa Rosaries, Met Costume Institute Gala 2017; Commissioned by Versace; Photo: Jason Lewis for Vogue

The world has changed in many ways with the advent of smarter and more unguided technologies. These are unguided in the sense that artificial processes can now produce outcomes with little human activity. Increasingly, this now means that how we define quality is reserved for predefined metric assessments placed within algorithms that sometimes give us opinions about what is best based on popularity or even shock value, and not the specifications of exquisite design etc. If I may ask, what are your views on digital culture, and by extension the trajectory of popular tastes generally? Is our time of algorithmic decisions a net good, bad or something other?

The deeper I get into conversations about unguided technologies, the more I Google. This leaves me with little to no time for real reactions, divergence of taste, sharing content, or at the very very least, content creation. Algorithms and metric assessments bum me out, and I’m sure with a data driven meta universe we will see more and more of this driving what is perceived as quality (art). My instinct is to say it’s bad, but only because I fear for my own interests and the quality/authenticity of the art or content I like to experience.

However, I don’t know that it’s a net good vs bad, it’s just a change we need to see through to the end. We’ll see a shift in how we create, who we create for, and there will be a crash. I look forward to seeing how this pans out, and it’s a big reason why I have returned to a tangible sculptural practice. I love having my art studio again where metrics don’t exist and you can actually touch something.

Conversely, I am excited to create digital versions of my work that can be enjoyed universally, and can be subject to the metrics and algorithms… being part of the conversation should be exciting and inspiring, whether you expect to “succeed” or not.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
RetroFuture Edible Arrangement; Sugared & sliced fruit on lucite swizzle sticks for an unexpected Holiday centrepiece; Photo: Julia Sherman of Salad for President

Having gained ample success it becomes easy to evolve in a direction that is an expectation of others, be this stylistically or otherwise, but may not be true to who we are. Do you ever have inner discussions about authenticity and its protection? Or is it wise to just become like water and constantly move with the tide?

In our culture we are conditioned to supply what is in demand. I have fallen for it a number of times, especially when at the whim of buyers, investors, social media commenters! But what’s nice about being human (and having a sense of humor) is that you snap out of it every now and then, and you see the honesty in what you do… you are true to what makes you tick, what feels natural and organic to who you are as an artist. I have my share of inner discussions, but authenticity isn’t one I agonize over.

I trust that my filter will spread across any project I do, that my voice will come across in any medium, and that it’s not for everyone. It’s for lots of you, and for that I am grateful, but what is cool is that we can choose what art we want to be around, what we let into our orbit to inspire us. So if I am water, I move with the tide, and we happen to move together along the same wave, then I am pleased to meet you.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Commission by Delpozo, Spanish Couture house, 2016

Please do share with us anything you would like to say, about future shows, new developments or even words from the heart.

I’m pretty insular with my art practice, I don’t have much staff around or invite a lot of press into my workplace. But lately, with my new studio that is purpose built for art (doesn’t have a kitchen!) I’m being more open, inviting people to see and react, open a dialogue. I’m remembering what felt so fresh all those years ago, that an active conversation is what keeps the ideas alive, that I won’t learn unless I listen. I love to be reborn, to allow that space and not to let the heaviness of previous experiences or careers weigh down the potential of new projects. I have a lot in the pipeline – some of this has been years in the making, some just developed within the last few weeks. I’m looking forward to welcoming new technologies into the scope, and to collaborating with artists and scientists that I have long admired.

A few things to look out for: larger more permanent sculptures, fountains, glass lighting, a process book highlighting my sewing, a jewelry collaboration, and of course a cannabis line.

In parting, I’d like to remind fellow artists reading this that it’s never too late to make things that are in your mind: there is an audience for everyone. A wise friend of mine recently said, go where you are celebrated. Make the work that makes you feel good, there’s a reason for it and it’s always worthwhile.

Timeless beauty and personal treasures, the magical sugar art of Maayan Zilberman
Artist Maayan Zilberman at her studio in Dumbo, November 2022; Photo: Jason Lewis


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