IN THE AFTERNOON LIGHT of his studio, Ed Jaffe paints a girl he saw years ago. He was strolling along an Ecuadorian when he spied her. Now the work is newly drawn and still colorless. Jaffe dabs white across the girl’s shoulders.
Screwing the lid back on a paint jar, he puts his brushes aside and changes into an old shirt. He passes through a hallway into another studio, this one with tall white walls and a floor coated with marble dust
He eyes his nemesis of three months, a chunk of green Vermont marble. It’s the hardest stone he’s ever carved, he says, pulling a protective shield over his face as he picks up a diamond coated cutting tool.
Ed Jaffe of Orange County is a versatile artist who has collectors across the country.
The painting of the Ecuadorian girl and the marble sculpture will complete a body of work that has consumed Jaffe for decades, but as one artistic period ends, the vigorous 71-year-old gears up for a trip and a dose of fresh inspiration. Next week, he leaves for a 10-day tour of Spain and Portugal, to visit the lands of the brigands and explorers of the late 15th century known as the Conquistadors.
This isn’t the first time Jaffe has looked to the past for content in his art. He’s hiked through Mayan and Incan ruins in South and Central America during the past 30 years or so.
Jaffe prepares for his trip–and runs his studio–from a gray-toned office behind the art showroom. Airline tickets and Spanish-language tapes are pushed aside as he settles in to talk dreamily about his travels but he grows impatient with a reporter’s questions about his photography career in the competitive New York advertising world of the 1960s and ’70s, and his later emergence as a sculptor and painter.
“That’s an old story,” he says. “This is about now.”
Jaffe draws, paints and sculpts–often, all in the same day. His work is abstract, but his paintings reveal the observant eye of the professional photographer he was for 22 years.
A native New Englander, he worked for major advertisers such as AT&T, IBM and Smith & Wesson and maintained a studio in Manhattan. A 1970 photo shoot in Vermont was the beginning of the end of that lucrative career. “I fell in love with the place and bought a piece of land,” he says.
Then he began to sculpt full time.
First it was in exotic hardwoods. (Jaffe didn’t switch to stone until the hardwoods were no longer available) He collected bits of broken shells and brought them home for subject matter. “I would place a shell fragment under a sharp light and draw the highlights and shadows, not the shell,” he says. Based on the drawing, he then made a sculpture that was abstract, but still aquatic-looking.
He was deeply immersed in sculpture, but “the camera still paid the bills,” he says. “I’d done everything with a camera I could, in the toughest market in the world.” As Jaffe moved from picture-maker to stone-carver–and later on, painter–the central concept of his work began to take shape
“I like cultures that are not my own,”
Jaffe heads to the hills and ocean fringes on his expeditions. In Ixtapa, Mexico, in the mid-1960s, he collected perfect shells for tourist ladies staying in his hotel and kept the broken shards for himself. In Guatemala in the mid-1980s, skirmishes in the mountains forced him back down to a village, and ultimately home. The same was true in Ecuador in the mid-1990s, when his sojourn was cut off by an attack by Peruvian forces two days into the trip.
He relies on research and travel to absorb the history that infuses his art and he relies on people who now inhabit these ancient lands for a lush sense of place. “I’m a Latin at heart, I guess,” he says .
His forays fed his sculpting talent and later his painting. The paintings have rich earth colors with geometric patterns that lie like lace over female subjects. He carries the Latin-culture themes and feel into sculpting Portuguese and Italian marble.
Collectors say his art is recognizable throughout the phases of his career.
I have one called ‘The Warrior,'” says Augie Brown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who has known Jaffe for almost 40 years “It’s a rugged face. There’s a strength to his sculpture.” Brown worked on photo shoots with Jaffe in New York in the 1960s and was one of the first male models in Eileen Ford’s agency. He has collected more than a dozen of Jaffe’s sculptures over the years. “I bought one of his first sculptures. It was leaning against his fireplace,” Brown says. He thought he had no talent.”
Jaffe says he got serious about painting 10 years ago, partially to indulge his love of drawing and form and he paints with a vengeance, starting with a tempered masonite board that gets rough treatment. “I use everything–scrapers, razors,” he says. An idea simmers for a while before Jaffe begins working. “When I paint, I have to think about what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s very intellectual. You have your arguments with it. You run into walls and you’ve got to get to a solution.”
Sculpting stone requires even more forethought but, “I do all of my thinking before I start”, he says. “never while I’m working. The stone is emotional and intuitive.”. When he fires up the pneumatic tools and drills, Jaffe is in his own world, perhaps an entire continent away.