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Huddled Statue of Liberty has roots in Long Island City

The image is ubiquitous in the city's subways during the winter months: a huddled figure with an instantly recognizable crown slumped on a sidewalk. That sculpture of the Statue of Liberty in the New York Cares Coat Drive posters is the work of Long Island City artist Zoe Morsette.

"It's gotten so much good press," she said. "People have stolen posters out of the subway to have me sign them."

Morsette has made a career of making props and costume pieces for Broadway, television and film. She was commissioned by a friend's studio to make the sculpture in 1991 for both a photo shoot and a video.

"I actually made the costume out of spandex, but the head was sculpted and the mask was cast in resin," she said.

"At first they said, 'Sculpt it like the statue,' " she said, referring to the distorted proportions designed to compensate for the viewer's perspective on the ground. "Then they decided her face was too stoic. They said, 'Could you make it look more vulnerable?' I suggested knitting the eyebrows."

Morsette's work earned her an award at the Dimensional Illustrators Awards Show. She regards it as a high point in a career that spans three decades.

Raised in Cape Cod, Mass., Morsette earned a degree in dance theater at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., before heading to Manhattan's East Village in 1974.

"There was a club behind every door that looked abandoned," she said.

But the city had a downside, as well.

"It took me two months to get held up," she said. "New York had a very different feeling back then. No chain stores or chain coffee shops."

Morsette's career in prop building began when a friend from school got her a job in Radio City's millinery department.

"I spent two years making headdresses for the Rockettes and hats for the llamas," she said.

After Radio City eliminated her department, Morsette gradually climbed the ladder, going from sculpting miniature Christmas scenes for the department store windows to building props for Broadway productions like "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" and "Cats."

She moved to Long Island City in 1983 after spending a year in New Jersey.

"I just could not afford to get back to Manhattan," she said. "I found an apartment in a Village Voice ad.

"When I came here, there wasn't even a Laundromat," she said. "But it had an incredible horizon. Now it looks like Miami on the East River with all the high-rise condominiums going up."

Morsette praises Long Island City's easy access to multiple subway lines and loves her studio across the street from Silvercup Studios. But she worries about the future of creative endeavors in the area.

Rents are climbing, and other financial woes are beginning to loom.

"Our costs have jumped," she said, noting the petroleum-based foam she prefers has shot up in price like the diesel fuel that powers the delivery trucks. "Most of our foam comes from Washington state, and shipping is half the cost of the product itself."

Morsette also said the arts scene she knew in Manhattan has largely died out. Her advice to artists moving to the city is to have a day job.

"It would be very tough if I was young now and didn't have a foothold here," she said. "When I moved here, you could get an apartment for $90, $100 a month. Of course, it was a lousy tenement, but you painted it and fixed it up."

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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