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We ran into this guy on the subway lugging a two-foot tall, anatomically perfect skeleton holding a plumb line up to a smaller skeleton on a pedestal. Naturally, we had to have a word.

"Measuring Up"

We ran into this guy on the subway lugging a two-foot tall, anatomically perfect skeleton holding a plumb line up to a smaller skeleton on a pedestal. Naturally, we had to have a word. A few days later we were standing in Paul Oestreicher’s studio surrounded by cracked skulls, jagged limbs, deconstructed animals, and medieval-looking apparatus, coming to terms with the fact that one of the best artists in New York is a middle-aged guy who sculpts life-size grandchildren for old ladies in Texas. It doesn’t even feel fair to call him an artist—artists are spoiled rich kids who spend more time worrying about their image and who they’re partying with than making things worth looking at. He’s more like a creative artisan, or an artsy craftsman, or how about just a really good fucking sculptor? I mean, look at that fucking thing!


Photo by Ben Ritter

Vice: Why is there a flayed, naked schoolboy sitting in the middle of the room?

Paul Oestreicher:

It’s an


[a human figure with the skin removed used to study anatomy], something I built from the bones out. It started out as a piece commissioned by a woman who had a fatal illness and knew she didn’t have much longer to live. She was very close with her grandson and really wanted to do something as a gift for him. She wanted a sculpture made that would be an enduring vision of him reading.

I wanted this to live and breathe and become Matthew. So to do that, I took measurements from him, bent my own armature, and sculpted the whole skeleton. From there I started adding deep muscles and ligaments and tendons, and then I brought it up to the kind of level where it is now. I was just going to carry it right to the skin and make a layered sculpture, so even though the viewer wouldn’t know that there’s anything under there, it would still be there.

When the client and her family came to look at the progress I had to cover it up with a sheet and hide it so they wouldn’t say, “What did you do to my son?” I really didn’t want to scare them—they’re expecting the work of art and here I’ve got this thing that looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop.

Do you have any formal training in sculpture?

Yes and no. I went to Purchase University in New York, but I wasn’t an art major. I was already doing this anyway and having shows and getting out there a little bit. My folks thought it might be wise to learn about something besides art, so I went as a lit and history major. After I graduated I took some sculpting classes at Parsons. About seven years ago I went to Italy and that was a total transformation for me, because until that time I mostly did wildlife. I really loved to sculpt the human figure but there weren’t many people teaching it. When I was in Italy I saw all the masters and wanted to know what they knew. I wanted to learn the anatomy—to have science further my art. I don’t want things to look wrong; I really like to use a figure to get to something more profound in people. So I found probably the finest artistic anatomist in the world—Frank Porcu. There was a three-year waiting list for his classes, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer and somehow I got in. He dissects every week, and he’ll come up with things that you won’t find even in medical textbooks.


What about this massive alligator you’ve got in the middle of the room here? Did you do some field research to get it looking so scary and real?

Yeah, I was down in Florida, paddling and snorkeling through the Everglades, seeing these creatures in their natural habitat. That was supplemented with a lot of work in zoos and gator parks, and I spoke with rangers and biologists. I really tried to go the extra mile, because if this thing gets placed in a zoo or in a museum I don’t want someone to say, “Well, it’s a cool piece, but you’re missing three teeth over here.” But I take liberties sometimes. There’s artistic truth and there’s anatomical truth, and I think they’re both important. But, for me, artistic truth is paramount so I’ll bend things if I think it’s going to make more of a visual impact. I want the viewer to feel what it’s really like up-close with a gator, to be filled with that kind of awe.

Do you feel a direct link to the tradition of figurative sculpture?

I feel like I’m one link in a very long chain. When I was in Italy there were times when I had tears in my eyes. This work was so beautiful, these guys had so much to say and they believed so fervently in what they were doing. You look at that incredible ceiling that Michelangelo made—the whole cosmos is in that ceiling—and whether you’re Christian or Jewish or whatever your background, when you see something that’s done by someone who believes in a thing with his whole soul and it’s coming from such a deep, true well of fervency and feeling, you sit back on your heels and you’re humbled. I think that we can easily lose that today in our postmodern age—we almost don’t believe in anything anymore, or we only believe in ourselves. We never rise beyond that to these powerful things and subjects that some of these guys believed with their whole hearts. I’m not saying this because we should to go to synagogue or church, or necessarily even hold the concept of God or anything like that… It’s more about thinking there’s something greater than us. And the search to understand the human form or to portray it, I think, is just such a natural awakening of that essence.


This is what Paul's been up to since we last spoke. It's called "Midnight Ride".

Here are few more things we found sitting around Paul's space. Enjoy!