Adventure and the Given

Part 1:  Bookless

When I left off on my last entry I had just proposed two installations for the upcoming demolition exhibition at Madison’s downtown public library.  I was excited.  I had relatively low expectations but strangely high hopes and that combination felt freeing.  It had been years since I had worked in an completely open space- one that requires a guerrilla approach and a DIY MacGyverism in which the greatest drawback to a project hinges on your ability to repurpose what’s there- and I was only too happy to begin.

Woven into the prospect of being able to build anything was a small group of librarians (Trent Miller, Michael Spelman and Jesse Vieau) and a maintenance crew (Mark, Mervyn, Chuck and Dave) who worked tirelessly with the artists in bringing their vision to the library.  Though much of the credit that encompassed the event focused on the artists or the library as a larger entity, these people were involved in everything that took place before, during and after the show.  Logistical projects like orchestrating large scale auctions to securing materials for artists from said auction… Researching blue prints to okay which walls could be dug into by burrowing artists and which were to be saved, etcetera, etcetera- were fielded by this group (and beyond, I’m sure).

In 10 days I put together two installations and hung a piece that I hadn’t shown before.  The library became a laboratory for sketching out ideas and exploring audience.

Passenger, located in the back corner of the basement was the first I set to task on building. I wanted to go high and big.  Using the floor plan of the geodesic dome I lived in when I was a kid I laid out a circle with moving boxes measuring 15′ in diameter.  Then I began to stack.

The basement corner before I got started.

Trial run of mapping out floor plan.

Wet set conduit for stacking reinforcement.

The reinforced stack.

After setting this up I worked on building a fort in the center of the circle.  My original concept for this piece was to incorporate the duality of forts -as temporary shelter and as spaces of childhood play- within the context of moving.  Unfortunately, after two days of building trial forts I came to understand that I didn’t have the sensibilities needed to express what I was thinking.  What I was able to build was aesthetically too haphazard to fit the rhythm of the box structure or referentially too literal. I realized I needed to spend a good chunk of time involved in some serious structural play before I was going to be able to physically articulate what was needed in the way of expressive forts.  So I decided to try out another concoction.

I brought in one of the slip-cast porcelain blankets I had in the ceramics studio, wrapped it in another moving blanket and set the lights.  As I walked around Passenger I saw that it functioned as a portrait, much like Caregiver and Placeholder I made this fall.  The porcelain blanket was surrounded, yet alone- amongst similar objects but definitively foreign through it’s material transformation.  I see the blanket as holding a phantom presence, like a memory of protection resting in frozen stasis; fragile and of a specific dimensional recollection.

This is the way the piece was displayed in the show.

Passenger from above.

From the side.

Detail of the blankets and box.

I found this configuration both exciting and problematic.  While I enjoyed the clean lines of the stacked box structure made, the sense of enclosure I felt while inside, the glow of the blanket and the preciousness implied by both the wrapping of the porcelain and the punctuated lighting… the arrangement of the main elements resisted crossing into the emotionally evocative space I was aiming for.

Passenger gave me a number of insights into how I want to handle both the boxes and the blankets in my upcoming MFA exhibition. Here’s a quick sketch of one possibility I saw while deinstalling:

What I like about this arrangement is that the hierarchy between the box stack and the blankets has been disolved.  The elements feel integrated.  The lack of monumentality makes the piece more emotionally approachable, the terms of how to understand it negotiable.

I also have new plans for the box stack.  They are a bit smaller and involve a miniature community…  More to come soon.


On the first floor of the exhibition I hung Daily Exchange- a piece built out of my parking passes from my first year at UW-Madison, baseball card protectors, quilting needles, fuel line earring backs and steel.  It is six feet in diameter and one inch wide.

Daily Exchange


From the side.

Showing how back lighting activates the layers of the piece.

Initially I was saving my parking passes for tax purposes, but as they began to stack up their potential grew.  They became the perfect material to illustrate my new favorite architectural conundrum.  During my first year in Madison I had become somewhat obsessed with the state capitol building.  I had never lived near a neoclassical domed capitol before.  My morning commute involved circling it’s base before parking at the Overture Center ramp.  Seeing the capitol not only aligned my directional compass, it symbolically re-inscribed a surreal sense of progress I was experiencing.  It all was a bit much, so I began to tease it out.

The piece started with the simple activity of tracing the silhouette of the capitol on each card by hand.  Then I cut each one out with an exacto separating the skyline from the building.  Next was coming up with a contraption that would poke holes in the corners of the baseball card protectors so they could be uniformly registered.  After running all of the protectors through the contraption below I began to assemble it.

The card protector poking machine.

The front and back of the piece were woven together by layering card protectors in a pattern over quilting needles.  In order to secure a uniform gap between the cards  I strung a half inch of fuel line on each needle before weaving the back part of the piece together.  Finally I finished the the piece by capping each needle with a clear earring back (visible in the image of the back seen above).

The frame was cut to dimension by Wiedenbeck Steel and then tack welded together.  Daily Exchange was labor intensive, but provided some really enjoyable moments of problem solving.  This piece was one of the most fun puzzles I’ve ever put together.

It’s reception at Bookless was incredible.  I was so happy to see this piece find a home and audience. The city bought Daily Exchange to add to their permanent art collection for the new library after the exhibition.  It will be on view following the opening of the renovated library building in 2013.  (Many, many thanks again to Trent for helping this happen.)


As it turned out, the first project I began for Bookless was the last to be finished.  Initially I was going to install all of the bookends I had collected off the library shelves into this little cubical… However, in the midst of the auction/book shelf removal week it found a home and disappeared.  Yep- window, walls and all- it was gone.

Trent assigned me the conference room on the second floor where he had been stashing some pretty amazing odds and ends for a library oddity installation. After helping him shuffle his treasure trove to another location the room was ready to go.  I had two days to imagine and complete the bookend installations before the show opened.  When I finished, the room contained three bookend sculptures, a photographic series and a wildly rigged gang of clamp lights and electrical cords across the cieling.

The great thing about working with a short deadline was how much the work began to resemble play. I set to task weaving, stacking and hanging, focusing more on formal  issues than anything else. The building parameters for the bookend pieces were simple: I worked with with only like-sized bookends in each piece.  The smaller bookends (measuring 5″x 5″x 5″) were arranged on the wall in stacks composing Arch. The larger bookends (measuring  12″x 8″x 8″) were woven together to create the repeated curved forms and large capped endings of Bridge. And finally, the square magazine holders were stacked together on the floor to cover a tricky electrical outlet.

Here are a couple of images of what the space looked like when I was finished.

Installation view of northwest corner.

And the southeast corner.

This is how the photos were installed.

Below is one of the images.

Blue Corridor, 6″x 8″, digital color photograph, 2012

While I stacked and unstacked, built and wove I took in the timely fashion and beauty of the bookends.  Their purpose had been utilitarian, but without the books they pointed clearly to the past 50 years of popular trends in color and shape.  The bookends were so poignant on their own I felt my greatest challenge while I worked was to not get in their way.

Arch began as an formal exploration of the curved shape punched into each bookend.   As it came together it’s meaning expanded for me to include ideas about urban communities, education and physical transformation.


Side detail.

Detail from side of bookends hanging on nails.

Bridge was built on top of a marble topped heating vent.  Serendipitously the opening in the vent was the exact dimension of the larger sized bookend tongues.  After figuring this out I began assembling the quarter circle segments on the floor.  Constructing Bridge began by stacking all of the black bookends together and then propping the curved forms they made against the ends of the window sill.  To make the quarter circles stand all I had to do was hook the tongue of the leading bookend in the group into the vent.  Super simple and fun to do.

Complete view at night.

Detail of right end.

Close up.

Bridge during the day.

Bookless brought me so many answers.  Being submerged in a huge public audience, engaging in a creative community I hadn’t met yet in Madison, experimenting with my work openly… This exhibition got everything I had for three weeks and has given back so much more in the month that has followed.  Beyond raising an awesome amount of money for the  public libraries in Madison, I believe Bookless made clear to everyone involved how much energy there is in this community for dynamic events supporting a greater good.


Part 2:  The MFA exhibition grows ever closer

Update: The last big slush mold is cast!  This mold was a fun experiment in how many ways and in varying levels of difficulty one can rig a set up to cast a part.

Step 1: Casting the top with an overbuilt yet totally bleed proof jig.

Step 2: Flipping the object and setting up for the 2nd and 3rd parts of the mold (the skinny sides)

Step 3 & 4: Casting the long sides with straps and clay, then clamping up to cast the bottom of the box.

Unfortunately the schlack I used to create a barrier so the cardboard wouldn’t absorb moisture from the plaster stuck to much of the interior of the box mold.  I coated it so thoroughly with oil soap that I am truly at a loss as to what transpired or what I did to upset the mold gods.  At this point I think it can only be salvaged for wax casting, which I’m hoping will bring some sort of magical solution of it’s own…

On a happier note:

The slip test proved successful.  Here is a bunny/puppy creature cast from a production mold fired to Cone 10.  Pretty.

With 55 gallons of beautiful white slip at my finger tips, much of the past two months has been filled with casting, casting and more casting.  At this point I have roughly 15 gallons left and am focused on getting the numbers of the various cast objects to where they need to be for the show.

For Rent sign casting

Ridge detail.

The two large sides of this 9-part mold that are pretty awesome on their own.

Production shot- Molds drying out following a full day of casting.

The For Rent mold strapped up post repair…  Frosting is the thin mold-maker’s lament!

I have given myself until the end of next week to finish the bulk of casting.  After that I have a week of trimming, drying and firing.  By mid-March I will be back in the sculpture department building out rough a few trial pieces and test presentation methods for the  porcelain pieces as well as a few other ideas I’ve been cultivating in my sketchbook. I feel truly thankful for the period I’ve spent embedded in the ceramics department. Not only have I become a much more competent mold maker and slip mixer, doing so much of it has helped me regain my hunger to put process aside and work directly for a while.

I think this moment may be the teetering on what some call balance…


Part 3:  Rolling all of the numbers on the odometer

The question I get most right now is, “What are your plans after you’re done with school?”

If only I had a concrete answer… It is bizarre to not know what you will be doing in six months.  Part of me feels pressured to have a good answer.  A good answer would  include a job, a big bright city, a steady line of upcoming exhibitions and residencies in the cue.  Yet a good answer can be hard to find when you’ve decided not to moonlight as your own career manager during your last semester of school.  For me the show comes first.  Not knowing what’s next right now is manageable because focusing solely on my MFA exhibition feels right.

After all, there is something quite amazing about balancing fear and hope on the precipice of a major moment in your life.

1 thought on “Adventure and the Given

  1. Hey Niki … For those of us unable to attend, this blog has provided a depth of experience we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. Thanks for providing an excellent photographic perspective of the event and the work that went into it’s production.

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