“Full circle” is how sculptor Alison Sigethy describes her life. “I just always made things,” says Sigethy. “Most of my early memories involve seeing or making art, so I’m not surprised this is what I ended up doing.”
When asked for an example of her early creations, Sigethy mentions a set of small soap sculptures she made out of the last tiny bits of a depleted soap bar—she still has them. And then there was the little bird family she sculpted out of clay she dug up while forced to sit out at recess for talking too much. Her mother had those birds for decades.
Her parents were both art lovers and encouraged her budding creativity. When they visited her grandparents in Bergen County, New Jersey, they would always take her to New York. Sigethy’s favorite place was the Steuben Fine Art collection in the back room of the Steuben Glass store on Fifth Avenue. She loved the sculptural crystal and was particularly fond of the Arctic pieces designed by John Houston.
Fast forward to present day and Sigethy has built a career in glass and possesses a deep love of the Arctic. An avid Greenland-style kayaker, she has competed in the Greenland National Kayak Championship and spent 10 weeks kayaking in Arctic Canada. “That’s what I mean when I describe my life as full-circle,” she explains. “I can look at every one of the vivid memories I have of my childhood and see a direct connection to the choices I made and the person I am today.”
While Sigethy enjoyed drawing as a child, she was compelled by sculpture—particularly kinetic sculpture. “My earliest memory of being blown away by art was when I saw Robert Breer’s Floats for the first time. I was probably seven, and these large, sleek sculptures moving around unaided captured my imagination completely. It was as if the artist had created life. Simply amazing.”
When asked about her obvious interest in the ocean, Sigethy jokes about having a childhood crush on Jacques Cousteau and mentions her favorite birthday gift of all time —the 10-gallon fish tank her parents gave her when she turned eight. But then she gets philosophical.
“The arts are an important part of our lives because of the emotions they generate within us and how they make us feel. I am incredibly aware that art possesses that power, so with every aspect of making a Sea Core, I’m striving to create beauty, calm, and joy my clients will experience every time they view their sculpture.”
If that sounds like a tall order, it is. But it’s one she takes seriously. “There are a lot of variables that change the experience. Size and colors are obvious, but I also need to know, how important is sound for this client? Are exuberant bubbles or small champagne bubbles more suitable? Do the lights need to dim or be controlled separately? These are small details, but they make a big difference.”
There is a surprising amount of engineering that goes into Sigethy’s sculptures. “I guess I’ve always been a geeky girl, but I like figuring things out. Problem-solving has been a major part of every job I’ve ever had.”
Sigethy may have always made things, but she didn’t start out as a professional artist. She studied Theater and Lighting Design at Mason Gross School of the Arts and got degrees in Interior Design and Art History from Marymount University. In her varied career, she worked as a theater lighting designer, marketing executive, kayak instructor, and wilderness medicine trainer before pursuing art full time. “They are all ingredients in the stew,” she explains. “I think the love of light and color that drew me to theater lighting is the same love that makes glass so compelling, and my choice of subject matter comes from time spent outdoors.”
Sigethy took her first glass class in 2001 when a friend talked her into taking the jewelry design class she was teaching. For one module, making glass pendants, the instructor brought in little kilns that looked like crockpots. That was when Sigethy learned working with glass was accessible. She immediately bought a small kiln and starting making glass art in her kitchen. But soon, she wanted more.
“I wanted to work larger, so I rented space with the terrific artists at the Washington Glass School in Washington, DC. It was great. I’d still be there if they didn’t lose their space to make way for the Washington National’s baseball stadium. That was a sad day, but it ended up working out. I juried into the Torpedo Factory Art Center later that year, and have been here ever since.”
Having a studio that is open to the public on a daily basis has been fundamental in forming her art practice. “I’m very lucky. By having a studio in a very public art center, people can see my art without my having to travel or do shows. This allows me to focus on the work. Word-of-mouth marketing has always worked very well for me. Most of my clients entertain, so I get a lot of referrals.”
Despite Sigethy’s many credentials, her work is not available through galleries. “There are a lot of great galleries, but I build each sculpture for a specific client. I enjoy that, and working directly with a client is the only way I can get all the details right to make the perfect sculpture for them. I’m not willing to compromise on that part of the process.”
Sigethy also has a growing portfolio of public artwork. “Public commissions are a lot of fun because of the scale. You can really go bold and make a statement, but designing good public art requires a lot of analysis. For each project I undertake, I evaluate the installation site and surrounding areas. I talk with community members and assess the needs and wants of the individuals who will use the space. Considering all these views, I design my work to enhance and give context to, the space in exciting and creative ways. It’s tremendously rewarding.”
A recent public commission was designing a large contemporary chandelier for the newly renovated Maryland Theater in Hagerstown. “A public art commission that is also lighting design and theater work—that’s what I’m talking about—it all comes around, full circle.”