Freda Coffing Tschumy – Sculpting Forces of Nature

The confluence of flowing water colliding with hot wax informs the abstract sculpture of Freda Coffing Tschumy. A pioneer in Miami’s art scene since the late 1960s, she’s transformed the ancient process of lost-wax bronze casting with spirited innovations.  To create her sculpture, she first immerses hot liquid wax in a solution of cold salt water.  This produces an immediate, stop-action record of that collision, registering what happens when salt water chills the hot wax into dynamic forms.

Why salt water?  “Salt water does not freeze,” she explains, noting that the frozen Arctic Ocean at the North Pole is an exception. “Salt lowers the temperature of freezing.” And since wax and water are incompatible, “the wax does not dissolve into the water. It preserves the action forced on it by the action of the water,” she continues. “When wax is molten is it will do anything that water will do, will flow any way that you want it to flow.”

Tschumy’s bronze abstract sculpture holds an unusual, often reverse mirror up to the physical world, inspired by how energy has sculpted the universe.  Her art loosely evokes how forces of nature have transformed our world, from roots and branches of trees to hidden interiors of sea shells, from whirling water spouts to jewel-like galaxies visible only through high-powered telescopes.

Distinguishing her sculpture are subtle references to interconnected, organic forms she’s long observed in sky and earth, even in chemicals making up human bodies.  At once strong and delicate, her art is layered with metaphors that reveal and conceal exterior and interior worlds.

“I love nature, and I love natural forms,” she says in an August 2022 interview in her Coconut Grove home and studio. “The more I learn about physics and the universe and the way things grow, it’s all one thing. Which I think is very thrilling.”

An early fascination with trees, ravines, rocks, fossils, and Native American artifacts shapes her career. Growing up, the budding sculptor’s love of drawing, painting, and modeling clay was complemented by a passion for geometry and math. From spending time in her inventor father’s workshop, she gained an understanding of tools and how things worked.

As a child, she remembers playing outside near a forest in Danville, Illinois.

There were streams to explore, rocks with unusual shapes to collect. One day yielded an exceptional discovery. Tschumy believes she unearthed a Native American mortar, carved from stone and used for grinding corn with a pestle. “I saw exactly the same kind of thing in the Field Museum in Chicago, so I am sure it was authentic,” she says.

For Tschumy, it was a precious find, another example of “those things that give us all a sense of connection with the people who were here before, with the rest of the earth, with the rest of the universe. Which is what religion is all about,” she muses.

Though Tschumy was born in Illinois and isn’t quite a “native daughter of South Florida,” as she reflects, her ties to this region run deep.  In 1942 at the age of three, she traveled with family to Miami for the first of annual summer visits. Later she attended public schools in Miami Beach and Coral Gables.

The formal basis for her career began at Vassar in the late 1950s, where she studied art history, French, studio sculpture, English, and religion, as well as math, biology, chemistry, and physics.  After college she studied painting and drawing at Art Students League in New York City. Next came two years at Academia di Belli Arti in Rome, focusing again on painting and drawing, in addition to Italian language, art, and architecture.

After these travels, she returned Miami to set up a studio and continue making art, earning an MFA from University of Miami. Her website documents an extensive teaching career in South Florida, including positions at University of Miami; where she was an instructor and Foundry Director from 1991 to 2003; and Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus, where was adjunct professor for foundry from 2008 to 2012.

A visit to Tschumy’s home and studio reveals her fascination with spiraling forms ubiquitous in nature, such as sculpture inspired by the gyre-like energy of a water spout over Biscayne Bay. On the wall is 2003 “Starry Night,” a wall relief made of cast expoxy, wax and metallic pigments from the series “Trax.”  It glimmers with a textured, metallic sheen, arching in a serpentine curve swirling into an enclosed spiral, reminiscent of galaxies observed through a telescope.

Curiously, this and similar relief sculptures may anticipate photos transmitted in July 2022 from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which revealed astonishing views of stars and galaxies from billions of years ago.

Tschumy’s artistic imagination travels effortlessly

from the cosmic scale to far more intimate proportions.  To quote Romantic Age English poet and visual artist William Blake, she invites us “to see the world in a grain of sand.” As Tchumy herself explains, she is equally fascinated by “images of the cosmos and the structures of chemicals that make up our bodies and our experience of the world.”

Displayed on a table is a small off-white, queen conch shell shaped with textured spirals. It rests side by side with a hand-held, immaculately smooth bronze sculpture created when the artist poured molten wax into a similar queen conch shell.  After the wax cooled and hardened, she dissolved the shell by pouring acid over it, then cast this wax form in bronze.

It’s tempting to think that the bronze shell is merely a twin of the actual shell, but close inspection reveals that it has nothing of the actual textures of its supposed “twin.”  “This is not actually a shell,” she says. “It’s the space inside shell.” Together, these two objects form a deceptively simple, sculptural pas de deux, choreographing the interplay of positive and negative space within the natural world.

Like artists working today who employ the lost-wax technique to cast bronze sculpture, Tschumy has created figurative work, including her sculpture of the late Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. What’s unusual about Tschumy’s practice is how she exploits the physical properties of molten wax colliding with cold salt water to create striking abstract forms. They evoke shapes marked by constant motion in the natural world.  She’s deeply attuned to how art can witness forces of nature animating the universe.

This essay was originally commissioned for the Coral Gables Museum catalog documenting the exhibit “Painting with Bronze: The Work of Freda Coffing Tschumy”.

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Elisa Turner

Elisa Turner is an award-winning art critic and journalist in Miami. In 2020 she won the national Rabkin Prize for visual art journalists. In 2021 and 2020 she was awarded First Place for her Arts Commentary & Criticism and in 2021 Second Place for her Arts Beat reporting from Florida’s Sunshine State Society of Professional Journalists.