Muriel Castanis, 80, sculptor with a unique method


By Albert Amateau

Muriel Castanis, a lifelong resident of the Village and a sculptor, one of whose works is embedded in the walls of the Flatbush Ave.-Brooklyn College subway station, died Nov. 22 at the age of 80.

For the past four years she was confined to a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with lung cancer and having had heart surgery, said her husband of 51 years, George Castanis.

She was a housewife and mother until 1964, when she decided to devote herself to painting after the youngest of her four children turned 10 years old. She began painting on printed cloth, which she pasted to fiberboard with Elmer’s glue, and used the printed image as part of her design. But she soon became intrigued with the shape the cloth took after the glue hardened.

By 1967 she had developed her signature technique of draping layers of epoxy-soaked cloth over mannequins.

“The epoxy hardens after a half hour or 45 minutes, so that’s when most of her creative work was done. It became stone hard after 24 hours,” her husband said. The mannequin, around which the epoxy-cloth was draped, is removed in sections after the epoxy hardens, and the figures, which evoke the drapery on classical Greek statuary, are hollow.

The youngest of six children, Muriel Castanis was born in the Village in 1926 to August and Julia Brunner. She became involved in art and painting at Greenwich House when she was 5 years old and spent summers in Virginia in the Fresh Air Fund program. She went to Music and Art High School and was in one of the school’s first graduating classes. She then worked at various design jobs in the apparel industry.

“We met in 1953 at a dance recital she was performing in and I was a goner — but I was trying to protect myself from beautiful women because I didn’t want to get married,” her husband said. “One day she was trying to explain something to me and she drew a picture. I was struck by its beauty and I thought, ‘If I do marry her my life would be filled with beauty.’ We got married in 1954 and my life was filled with beauty.”

Muriel’s first art studio in 1964 was in a space atop the Cable Building at Houston St. and Broadway.

“The rent was $30 more than the monthly budget she set for herself, and she wouldn’t take it until I said I’d rent it myself if she didn’t,” her husband said.

She worked there until the late 1970s when the rent became too expensive and she found studio space in a city-owned loft building on 10th Ave. and 52nd St.

In 1977, she created a cave for the Off-Broadway play “Fish Joy” that won an Obie Award for set design.

“She became famous in the art world in 1980 when she had a show at O.K. Harris that sold out,” her husband said. Many of her hollow, epoxy-hard figures are over 6 feet tall. Her works are in the collections of the Catholic Museum of Art and History in Manhattan, Detroit Institute of Art, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the library of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and the IBM atrium in Atlanta where a 15-foot-tall Native American figure of hers stands.

In 1983, the architect Philip Johnson commissioned her to create sculpture for the top story of a skyscraper he was designing with John Burgee for 580 California St., in San Francisco. Three different heroic-size figures are repeated on each side of the building.

In 1992, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority commissioned her to do a bronze casting of a new work for the Flatbush Ave. subway station. The work, “Flatbush Floogies,” takes its name from a Fats Waller tune, “Flat Foot Floogies,” that was popularized in 1937 by the Slim Gaillard band and later by The Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong.

In addition to her husband, a toy inventor, three sons — Thaddeus of New York and Claudius and Augustus of Los Angeles — and a daughter, Phoebe Coombs, of Schwenksville, Pa., also survive.

The Greenwich Village Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.