By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Natalie Krol. See more of Krol’s art at NatalieKrol.Com.]
Were you into art as a kid?
I took a journalism class in junior high school, and that’s where I learned I loved expressing myself through prose. Poetry, though, became my favorite. I wrote a lot of poetry and tackled all the “why” questions. Why is there war in the world? Why are people unhappy? That’s big stuff to get into, right? And it was great fun. … When I moved into high school I got into literature. When I got married, I wanted a career that would let me stay home with my kids, so I started writing children’s stories. I remember one about a little cloud that talked to children about how the rain came. I decided one day that I would illustrate my stories. I’d met a gal who’d taken classes at the Chicago Art Institute, and I asked her to teach me to illustrate. I was about 21 at the time. I had one baby and another one in the basket. So, I went to her home and took eight lessons. Realizing I knew about as much as she did about art, I decided, hey, I’m going to art school, and I fell madly in love with the art world. I didn’t know about Picasso, didn’t know who Rembrandt was. So I started haunting museums.
Which museums? Where were you living then?
Well, I was born in Los Angeles and lived my entire life there until I moved to Prescott 27 years ago. They have some wonderful big stuff there. I loved the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It opened a whole new door for me. I decided I wanted to be an artist. I was blessed to have teachers who were real, working artists — not just teachers, but people who were functioning in the art world. I took classes with Arnold Mesches, Joan Carl, Morton Dimondstein, Leonard Cutrow, and Martin Lubner. I studied in a place called the New School of Art, which, after two years, went belly-up. I went right into life drawing class, which was very difficult. The classes lasted three hours and after two hours I’d get bored and start putting the nude into a sling or a hammock. When Mesches was teaching the class, he’d say, “OK, everyone, it’s time for 20 minutes of play time for Natalie.” Ted Gillian was another teacher who taught painting classes. He passed away very young — he was badly damaged during World War II, making art in the fighting field — he was one of the first people to tell me I had talent. After the art school went belly-up, I studied with Sueo Serisawa, who was a painter and Zen master. He taught me how to see and correct my errors. I spent two years with Serisawa. All his students became little miniatures of him, and I saw that and thought, I don’t want to go that way. He had these lectures telling us not paint like Munch or Picasso, and I just felt they were targeted at me at certain times. He was low-key, quiet and introspective, and I would paint with these wild colors and images. Eventually I went off on my own. Next, I took a stone carving class with Richard Frazier, a retired architect, and I carved stones for 10 years beside making paintings and drawings. Eventually, I got into the world of sculptures thanks to this little knobby man I only knew as Vito. Then, I met Ed Kienholz in his L.A. Ferris Gallery. He helped me set up my garage as a studio and I went to work and did my thing.
What inspired you to try new things?
I was inspired by flowers, landscapes, and people — I would say, mostly, people. A lot of that goes back to the paintings I was doing when I was in Serisawa’s class. You know, thinking about it, there were about 16 of us in a large room, and Sueo sat in this small annex off to the side. We’d take our pieces off the easel, lean them against the wall and sit next to him. He’d ask us, “So, what’s wrong?” And, through that, I’d discover that I didn’t like this area or that area or that this part was too dark. He’d ask how I could fix it. I’d say make it brighter, and he’d say go try it. It taught me how to correct my own work. When I told him I was leaving, he told me I shouldn’t, that he couldn’t let go of his best student, and he offered to keep teaching me without charge, but I told him I had to go, had to move along and do my own thing. … In terms of being inspired by people, next I did a series of paintings of pregnant women called “Symbiosis,” and, later, a series about 20th-century loneliness. I’d hire models and ask them, “Do you know how to be lonely?” And of course they did. It included a lot of people looking out of windows, looking over or around bars on the windows.
Tell us about your husband, your kids, and their role in all of this.
My husband’s name was Jack Solomon, and he was always supportive. I kept my maiden name when we got married because I was already signing artwork. Also, I had no brothers, so I was keeping the family name, Krol, alive. It’s Polish, and it means “king.” I have two kids: David Michael Solomon — all three are king’s names — and Gary Krol Solomon. We had a lot of fun. They were great children. While they were in school and Jack was at work, I would do my art. When he came home at 5 p.m., I went into the house and made dinner and became a family member. I had a wonderful family life and an awesome marriage. We were married 60 years. He’d always offer to do the dishes. We loved to entertain, and kept doing that once we were in Prescott. He’d help get ready for company and by 7 or 7:30 p.m. every night he was washing the dishes. Women would always ask me how I got him to do that, and I’d say, “You can’t get anyone to do that; it has to be within them to want to do it.” He was such a handsome, loving, considerate, and supportive person. He’d come into my studio and ask if I wanted him to read to me. He read Stephen Hawking, biographies, literature, novels, a lot of science stuff. Anything that pleased him — I listened to it and I loved it. I knew nothing about art, and when I told him we had to go to live in Europe so I could study art, he said, OK. Swe traveled around Europe for 11 months. The Iron Curtain was still a concern then, and that shaped where we could go. Anyway, we just had that kind of relationship. We always had fun. We always loved living life together. He’d put on music and dance with me around the kitchen. When you’re young, you never know what will happen, especially in a marriage. In our case we grew and matured together instead of apart.
How did you go from painting to making huge sculptures?
I went from art school into sculpting classes, looked at all the people selling paintings at market parking lots, and thought I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I thought I’d try to build pieces for buildings and municipalities. Not so many people go into that field. I figured it was worth a try. I studied welding at Santa Monica College. I spent two difficult years hiring babysitters, going out once a week, pitching my work until an architect said, “I think we can use you.” It didn’t happen like magic. It was painful doing that, packing up that suitcase with a carousel of slides again and again. I’d go out dressed in a suit and high heels. I got my first job at the Glendale Federal Savings and Loan Building in Pasadena, Calif. The architect wanted me to do a series of pipes criss-crossed, so I got a lot of pipes at a junkyard and laid them down and, I’ll tell you, it was the ugliest drawing I’ve ever made. I hated the idea, and I hated my proposal. It wasn’t pretty. I went in to give a presentation about it, and the president and V.P. from the bank looked at my drawing as well as my portfolio. The bank president must’ve been a very sensitive man. He said, “This doesn’t look like any of your other work. Why don’t you try again with a different approach.” I took one look at the architect, took a deep breath, and did just that.
How would you describe the thing you’re known for in the art world?
I pioneered the casting of fine art in stainless steel. I was looking for a new foundry and ended up at a place in Santa Monica. I brought in a wax I’d made for casting. The young man there asked if I’d ever considered casting in stainless steel. I said, “Oh no,” because the only thing I’d ever heard of being cast in stainless steel was sinks and silverware. “Well,” he told me, “we use it to cast airplane engines.” That got me thinking. Stainless steel is full of nickel, so it’s very expensive, but very, very durable. It’s a hundred times harder than bronze. It melts at about 3,000 degrees while bronze melts at 2,000. Anyway, I gave it a try and cast my first piece in stainless steel, but I still didn’t know how to work the surface. I’d learned how to cast bronze in California from the most hippie guy I’d ever met — sometimes I showed up for a lesson, and there was a “Gone Fishin’” sign on his door. For stainless steel, I needed special tools and equipment. That landed me in a golf shop. That makes sense, right? The shop has all the polishing and grinding tools for stainless steel golf clubs. When you work with stainless steel you need a face mask and gloves, and I looked like a robot walking around in the shop. The second large thing I built in mild steel was a playground for autistic and retarded children. I was given certain parameters: no resting places or swings; these kids needed to build body muscles and not just sit. I asked Jim O’Neill of Santa Monica City College to help, and he told me, “Natalie, you might not always know how to do things, but you pick the best teachers to show you how.” He introduced me to Bill Singlehurst, who became a wonderful, wonderful friend. We did balancing beams for the playground out of railroad ties. I also made a crow’s nest with a fireman’s pole. We welded a piece called “London Bridge” and painted it. I worked with Norman Gonzales on a piece called “Ring Around the Rosy” in concrete. I’ve been living a truly magic, magnificent life and worked with so many amazing people along the way. For every big industrial building, I learn something about my business from the owner. When I worked with O’Neill, I did an 11-foot piece on a building and he showed me how to use a cup of concrete on the back, a bar, that would keep the building clean of dust and dirt from the sculpture when it rained. All it took was a Styrofoam cup filled with mud, that is, concrete, set on top of the spot where the welding rod hit the building. There are always new little practical things you pick up. … The thing is, you don’t have someone to guide you through each project because in many ways it’s the first and only time that project is being created. You’ve got to innovate and integrate what you learn along the way. … I have 57 or 59 large sculptures out in the world — the big ones — and I’ve sold at least 1,450 pieces to private collectors. I’ve worked very hard, but it’s been rewarding and I’ve gotten to travel all around the world doing it.
Your work encompasses so many different styles and mediums. Why didn’t you limit your works to large-scale sculptures?
It’s been one discovery after another. My most recent pieces feature these hanging crystals. And, as far as sculptures go, a lot of small ones are made with the intent of using them to make bigger pieces, but that doesn’t always happen. Anyway, I like to have fun and try new things. You come up with ideas that you don’t always get to try. I’ve learned so many different formulas for stainless steel, so many series. Different versions for different uses. … You know, you think about artists as visual people, but some of us are verbal. I’ll get together with other artists and we all love telling stories about different things. Actually, I may co-host a public access talk show with Bonnie Casey here soon. She’s so articulate and so much fun. There are all these funny things that happen when you’re an artist that you only talk about with other artists. I remember that Ted Gillian couldn’t speak a sentence without swearing, and an older woman in the class at that time wanted us to sign this letter asking him to stop. None of us would do it; it was part of his vernacular, how he talked, and he wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on teaching if he was concentrating on not swearing. Another time, we were drawing nude figures in Arnold Mesches’ class and the model was an older woman, about 60, and very chubby and wearing only a rhinestone necklace. That’s a pretty funny image. So, she’s standing, posing too long, and she starts rocking back and forth. Arnold goes over, this little skinny guy, and tries to catch her and she just totally flattens him. Can you imagine? She’s out cold and there are these tiny arms and legs flailing under her. That poor lady passed out and a bunch of people from the class couldn’t stop laughing long enough to help her up. I mean, we did, eventually, of course. But it was so hard to stop laughing.
You’ve taken some time away from art, but I understand you recently started painting again.
I went to a concert a few months ago, some big rock ‘n’ roll band, and the antics of one of the guitar players who kept doing the splits — well, part way — really stuck with me. The image of that is something I’ve been playing with. I hadn’t been painting, but I got out my easel and gesso and started painting again. Sometimes something just captures your imagination and you’re drawing again and you’re painting again. It’s those images and experiences in life that take your breath away. That’s why you create art. … Actually, I’d taken a break from sculpture until a couple of years ago. A big gallery in Sedona was doing a show with 31 artists doing … well, I call it garbage art, but I think has a prettier name now, like recycled or up-cycled art or something like that. I went to the Patriot dump and went into their copper bin and found all kinds of things. I brought them home and laid them out and moved things around, but kept all the shapes in their original forms. A lot of people had manipulated the parts for their pieces, but I really enjoyed keeping them intact. I got a call from the gallery three weeks after the show opened and heard that someone wanted to buy my piece, and I thought, “Natalie, you’re back in business.”
See more of Natalie Krol’s art at NatalieKrol.Com.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.
Tags: Arnold Mesches, Glendale Federal Savings and Loan Building, James Dungeon, Jim O'Neill, Joan Carl, Leonard Cutrow, Martin Lubor, Morton Dimondstein, Natalie Krol, New School of Art, Norman Gonzales, Santa Monica College, Sueo Serisawa, Ted Gillian, Vito