Once upon a time, in a remote Russian village, there lived a girl named Elizabeth Lyska. She was an ordinary girl in almost every way, except one: she was extraordinarily tall. Not just of slightly above-average height, but tall enough that she toured around the world as part of a circus act in the late 19th century. In fact, she became one of the tallest women in history.

By the time she died, Lyska had grown to an astounding 7-foot-2. By comparison, if she were alive today, she would be as tall as the tallest woman to ever play in the WNBA; unfortunately for her, basketball was not invented until 1891. Also renowned for her beauty, she was said to have captured the affections of an amorous Austrian count while visiting Vienna.

Lyska is the subject of Seattle-based sculptor Patty Grazini’s latest exhibition, The Life of the Giantess. Currently on display at the Emerald City’s Curtis Steiner gallery is a life-sized sculpture of Lyska, which Grazini constructed entirely out of paper.

But Grazini’s work is a whole lot more than just a forest product representation of a person who obviously had an overactive pituitary gland. In constructing Lyska, Grazini immersed herself in her world, using documents from the time in the piece itself to bring it to life. It gives the term “living history” a whole new meaning.

The Life of the Giantess is also a radical departure from Grazini’s last exhibition, a collection of 13 smaller sculptures based on people who were reported as committing crimes in New York City during the height of the Victorian Era. The creation of Lyska, however, also presented some unique challenges, not the least of which was how to transport the massive sculpture to the gallery in the famous Seattle rain.

After taking in a Knicks game and realizing newspaper makes a rather poor umbrella, GALO caught up with Grazini. Here’s what she had to say.

GALO: Your latest work, The Life of the Giantess, draws from the life and cultural setting of Elizabeth Lyska, a Russian woman who became famous in the late 1800s for her unusual height. What was your motivation for picking Lyska as a subject to explore? How did you come across her story?

Patty Grazini: A few years ago, I was doing research for another show, using original historic articles from the New York Times. I kept getting distracted reading about [P.T.] Barnum’s American Museum that operated in New York from 1841-1865. Since then, I kept it in the back of my mind as an interesting and challenging arena to explore. These “museums” were open to everyone, and put on display anything that would attract visitors, including people with abnormalities. In exploring this topic, I decided to portray the life of an individual that was shown as an attraction in one of these “museums.” Moved by an image of the giantess, Elizabeth Lyska, I decided to focus on her and her life. Smiling sweetly, Elizabeth is dressed in traditional Russian attire posed next to her sister, who was of average height. Towering over the sister, her hands and feet appear to be twice the size. I wanted to explore her world.

(L-R) The Elizabeth Lyska paper sculpture by artist Patty Grazini made for "The Life of the Giantess" exhibit in Seattle; the actual Elizabeth Lyska.

(L-R) The Elizabeth Lyska paper sculpture by artist Patty Grazini made for “The Life of the Giantess” exhibit in Seattle; the actual Elizabeth Lyska.

As a tribute to the giantess and her life, I wanted to exhibit her in paper, giving the audience a sense that they were entering a museum. Elizabeth stands in the center of the room, surrounded by her 16 personal items. Most of the items are mementos and gifts which she might have acquired as she toured. Accompanying each object is a narrative connecting it to Elizabeth. Because little precise information is known about her, these stories needed to be created. The background of each narrative is factual, based on accurate research from her time period. Real people, places and locations are used to spin fabulous stories with Elizabeth in the center, giving life to each piece. These narrations were written by my son, Tynan Kogane, who is a writer.

GALO: The Life of the Giantess is made at the same height Lyska was — 7’2”. What were some particular challenges you faced when creating this sculpture, especially with paper as the medium?

PG: Working in this scale was indeed a challenge for me. My work is usually on a much smaller scale and very detailed. I was concerned about being able to bring the same amount of detail to such a large piece. It was difficult finding paper that was suitable in size and color. While working on Elizabeth, I often needed to stop work as I resolved issues with finding suitable paper. Her hair was a particular challenge. She wore her hair long and flowing. It was difficult to find the right technique to be able to make it look as hair-like [as] possible, yet I want the viewer to realize that she is entirely made out of paper.

A close-up of the Elizabeth Lyska paper sculpture by artist Patty Grazini made for “The Life of the Giantess” exhibit. Photo Courtesy of: Patty Grazini.

GALO: November 10 was the opening of The Life of the Giantess at the Curtis Steiner gallery in Seattle. How did you manage to transport such a large sculpture to the gallery, or did you create it as an installation piece? And why create the piece 7’2” high anyway? Why not make a smaller version?

PG: I was concerned about transporting Elizabeth. I live in Seattle, where we can have rain almost every day. Luckily, the day she was moved, the sky was clear. Her head is removable so I rented a truck large enough for her to ride standing.

Patty Grazini loading her paper sculpture of Elizabeth Lyska onto a truck. Photo Courtesy of: Patty Grazini.

I felt that it was very important to construct the giantess at her actual height. I wanted to introduce her as a real person from history and wanted her to mirror the world in which she lived, giving the spectator today an opportunity to experience a bit of the drama that she would have created. I also constructed a child who acts as her assistant holding a sign advertising her arrival. She stands at four feet, giving the giantess an even larger appearance.

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