Cynthia Ebin grew up surrounded by the Holocaust. Although her parents had immigrated to the United States long before Hitler's rise to power, they had left most of their family behind in Europe. Born at height of World War II, Ebin lost much of her family to the horrors of Hitler's "final solution."
In addition, she was affected deeply by her father's graphic paint and charcoal pictures of the concentration camps. As a result, says the Woodland Hills sculptor, she has always been drawn to cataclysmic events.
"I've always felt spiritually connected to them," Ebin said. As a child, she explained, she had recurring dreams of being one of the victims locked in a synagogue and burned.
Her fascination with monumental disasters has led to her latest passion--a proposed memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, using four life-size figures to represent a family captured in a moment of defiance.
Ebin, who has had shows at more than 30 galleries and museums, uses clay figures made from actual plaster body casts to capture humanity in the extremes of emotional experience. Her art is highly charged, unsettling and even disturbing. She freezes catastrophic moments in history such as the volcanic burial of Herculaneum, the city destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius the day after Pompeii in AD 79.
"I feel compelled to record the Holocaust," said Ebin, her own raw energy bubbling over in her mannerisms as she repeatedly pushed her hair off her face. "I don't have a choice. My whole life, my destiny, was leading to this point, as if everything up to now was preparing me and my techniques and abilities for my Holocaust piece. It's become the focal point of my energy."
She has read everything she could get her hands on about the Holocaust. "Everyone talks about lambs to the slaughter, that the Jews didn't fight. It wasn't true," she insisted. To counteract the myth, Ebin says, she designed an angry and defiant piece of sculpture where the main figure, a willowy 6-foot, 4-inch man, is standing strong and erect.
"I have to cry out for the people who can't," she said. "I want to make a powerful, unforgettable statement about the family unit being torn asunder by the acts of madmen. Those people may have perished, but their souls live on."
Benno Fisher, a Holocaust survivor and the architect for Martyrs Memorial Museum in Los Angeles, noted in a recent telephone interview that Ebin's figures "are shot through, disjointed, with burnt hands, legs and torso--perfect for depiction of Holocaust survivors." The material that Ebin's figures are made of isn't polished. "It's rough, like life," he said.
Carl Schlosberg, a private art dealer and president of the sculpture garden at the University of Judaism, describes her work as "very powerful, tough, gutsy and penetrating. It has such an immediate impact."
"My work is very confrontational for people," Ebin said. "I'm showing people's emotions--birth, pain, sorrow and angst--in sculptural form. And, often, people are uncomfortable."
On a tour of her studio/garage, Ebin explains how she creates her sculptures. Each figure takes about six months.
She begins by wrapping models in plaster bandages that harden into a mold. Ebin displays her hundreds of body pieces--chests, forearms, thighs, feet--and shows how she places the clay into the curves and crevices of the hardened-bandage mold, how she fires the clay in a kiln, then smoke-fires it in metal drums to create its subtle brown, gray, black and pale pink shadings. The clay is cemented to a welded steel-rod skeleton.
She gets down on the ground to show off welds and linchpins that allow arms and legs to be removed so the pieces, some of which weight 200 pounds, can be more easily moved. "These are small engineering feats," she said with a smile.
It's an expensive process. She must buy the materials, rent the kiln and pay a welder $30 an hour. She flits from one project to another, showing pictures, pointing out pieces, offering hardened body bandages for inspection.
Her house is a gallery for her pieces by default, she says with a laugh. Everywhere are more sculptures. On the walls are her chest pieces, playfully called her "Armour-Amor series," on the floor sits "Sorrow," on the coffee table a life-size child from her Herculaneum series called "Memoir."
"My art is my own pain for these people's plight," she said while quietly fondling the sleeping 'Memoir.' There's a power in keeping that alive."
Ebin's pieces are on display at the newly opened Finegood Art Gallery at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in Canoga Park until Feb. 12 . Call (818) 716-1100 for gallery hours.