A Vision in White

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A Vision in White views Michelle Obama through the lens of recent media coverage, capturing both her splendor and the limitations of its gaze. By distilling the media’s portrayal of Michelle Obama down to her most discussed features, this piece reveals the ways in which her national portrait remains partial and fragmented. What is visible points to what is invisible, ultimately showing how Michelle Obama, as a whole person, is publicly reduced into mere parts. A Vision in White underscores intersections and overlaps between power, race, and gender in American culture.

THE CONTEXT:

When the term “First Lady” is used apolitically, it describes a woman with an exceptional level of talent in a particular field (Aretha Franklin has been honored as “The First Lady of Soul”; Madonna is the “First Lady of Pop”). The First Lady of the United States of America, conversely, earns her title through her husband’s election. Stars in entertainment are celebrated for their unique gifts, while a First Lady is appreciated for her ability to assimilate into a role nearly identical to that of the woman who preceded her. She is championed as a wife, mother, hostess, and volunteer. It is the First Lady’s ability to adopt this persona that is key to her legacy: her dedication to politically non-divisive causes, ability to organize and attend ceremonies, and of course, to look good doing it all.

The few who have defied the prescribed role of First Lady by remaining meaningfully employed or by voicing their political views have faced intense public scrutiny. Interestingly, these “unladylike” activities have drawn attention to the First Lady as a cultural gague for historical shifts—and at times transgressions—in normative gender roles.  Over sixty percent of women in the U.S. are currently employed, a fact which would lead one to think that a professional First Lady would be celebrated in the White House—yet the nation let out a sigh of relief after the 2008 presidential election when Michelle Obama traded in her legal practice for designer fashions and the fight against childhood obesity.

Like a majority of Americans, I was excited to see Michelle Obama become First Lady in 2009. Obama, a black lawyer from Chicago, in many ways embodied an ideal portrait of the American dream. From her blue-collar upbringing to her graduation from Princeton, Obama was a bold choice for First Lady. Campaign interviews revealed her to be both articulate and driven.  She framed her marriage as a partnership, and her children as her greatest responsibility. Doubts about her ability to put aside her professional ambitions to assume the role of First Lady were quickly put to rest in the first term. During her celebrated tenure, it has become clear that Michelle Obama holds a specific cultural significance, unlike any other First Lady. Not only is she the first woman of color to become First Lady, she has become emblematic of America’s struggle to negotiate issues of race, power, and gender.

Cultural tensions have been visible in the media. For decades a First Lady’s fashion has been part of the inaugural blitz, but in early 2009, media outlets began reporting sightings of Obama’s arms, referring to them as the “Gun Show.” This unprecedented focus on her body crossed an unspoken line of civility; a president’s wife was being freely objectified by the media. Comparing the treatment of other First Ladies during their time in office makes this difference even more pronounced: Kennedy was celebrated as a fashion icon; Clinton for her many fashion faux pas; yet news coverage of the designers Obama wears runs second to how her figure looks in the clothes.

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Mainstream media discourse suggests that the American public is both mesmerized by and terrified of Obama’s strength and beauty. It is as if our nation is transfixed with the otherness of this First Lady of color. The convergence of the role of First Lady and the black female body have evoked a form of overt, sexual objectification never before directed at the office of First Lady. This focus on Obama’s body has sexualized what has been a historically sexless role encouraging a type of “parts and pieces” dialogue reminiscent of both auction blocks and meat markets in this nation’s not-so-distant past.

While some backlash against The Administration is expected in any presidency, the level of sexism and racism directed at this First Lady by men in power is astonishing. Attempts to overshadow Obama’s extensive education, professional experience, and value as a human being further reflect the unique struggle this First Lady has faced in overcoming social and cultural prejudice.

RELATED WORKS:

A Vision in White is part of an evolving series of artworks I have made over the past five years that explore the cultural intersections of the role of First Lady in contemporary society. As national role models, the ways in which each presidential wife negotiates the issues of marriage, identity, and power have historically correlated with normative gender trends for women and girls in the United States. Mrs. President, a piece I made in 2009, engages the obscurity of what it is to become a historical figure through marriage.  This piece features silhouettes of each first lady’s head with her corresponding husband drawn on top. The Great American Bake-Off features cross-stitched portraits of the 2008 democratic candidates’ spouses framed in bakeware. This piece focuses on the cultural interplay of gender, race, and domesticity that permeated political discourse during this historic election. To see more of these and my other works please visit my site.

While making A Vision in White, two sculptures continued to resurface in my thoughts: Fragments of a Queen’s Face, from the 18th Dynasty of the Amarna Period of ancient Egypt, and Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees, 1966.

A Vision in White draws from the formal arrangement of these works, as well as from their aesthetic, which is both minimal and refined. From the jasper lips, I drew inspiration to create a likeness of Obama that was well crafted and reflective of her beauty. Casting the arms out of glass not only gave them a diaphanous quality, but also created a resonance with sculpture from the Classical period in ancient Greece and Rome, as did the draping of cloth across the armature that forms Obama’s invisible body.

A Vision in White and London Knees share the use of a hem line to delineate what part of the body is represented in the sculpture.  Similarly, they speak to a moment in the fashion continuum. What is true of Fragment of a Queen’s Face, London Knees and A Vision in White is that they are all informed by what is missing.  It is by recognizing what is not there that each portrait becomes whole.

Other artists who also make great work about the First Ladies worth checking out: Martha Wilson, Jean-Pierre Khazem, and Sarah Ferguson.

PROCESS IMAGES:

The slideshow below details the many steps taken in creating this artwork. You can pause it and scroll through by clicking at the bottom of any image.

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A Vision in White took approximately 400 hours to produce over the course of four months in three cities.

THANKS:

Many thanks to Martina Igerbraese-Cole, Angela Caldera, Jill Sebastian, Steve Feren, Matt Pipenbrok, Brian Nigus, Qiang Liu, Rory Erler and Mary Hoffman for the various ways you helped to make this piece happen. This portrait is a success thanks to you and your generous lending of time and knowledge. Thank you to Lea Johnson, Ginny Johnson, and Brandi Rogers for being my faithful editors. Your eyes and ears are invaluable. Thanks to Eric Baileys for the beautiful photographs. Finally, thank you to Debra Brehmer for including A Vision in White in the current exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery, The Personal is Political: Martha Wilson & MKE.  I am ever thankful for the opportunity, support and risk your gallery takes in the name of fine art.

A Vision in White is now on display at the Portrait Society Gallery through July 14th.

Eggs Benedict: Part 2


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A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his trip to Africa in 2009:

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.”

In 2009 I began working on a portrait of emeritus Pope Benedict, a latex embroidery made out of approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms. I completed the stitching just as Pope Benedict entered retirement in March of 2013. Eggs Benedict is currently on display at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This post covers my experience of having Eggs Benedict go viral, riding a wild media wave (or two), and engaging global conversations about the importance of interventionist artwork.  I also discuss how the events of the past month have inspired me to auction off the piece in a relatively unconventional manner, in hopes of raising money to benefit AIDS advocacy worldwide.

GOING VIRAL:

It has been just over a month since I posted Eggs Benedict on WordPress, and four weeks since I gave my first interview. In this time I have talked to numerous print reporters in person and on the phone and I just completed my third televised interview. News coverage has crossed the oceans. My thoughts have been translated into languages I cannot speak. Story lines (factual and otherwise) have caught like wildfire giving rise to an onslaught of activity on comment boards worldwide.

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When the first articles hit the internet the portrait began to take on a new life; one that was relatively indifferent to my practice and completely within the context of the daily grind. Due to the unusual nature of the story, it found shelter in an array of news sections from Arts & Entertainment to “Weird News,” and from Religion to the front page of various publications. Bloggers began blogging about it.

My age was misquoted by one source, which then was piggybacked by numerous other news agencies, making me 10 years younger in only 24 hours. While such a shot at rejuvenation might be a welcome chance for some, I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks emphasizing the full 35 years of my life, while being ever amazed at the laxness of fact checking that can take place at the high speed of modern journalism.

With that said, I have been very pleased with the type of coverage given by the reporters who have interviewed me. It is through their interest and skill that this story has gained traction.  Barbara Munker at the German Press Agency broke the story worldwide, while  Mary-Louise Schumacher and Kat Murrell contextualized the artwork within the broader scope of my practice.  Television reporters Stephanie Brown and Angelica Duria did an incredible job crafting as much depth as possible into two-minute stories for their respective news programs.  The list goes on, but in an effort to not laundry list I can say that all of the reporters I spoke with were careful not to stir additional conflict in this story or sensationalize the piece.

Not surprisingly, some factual fabrication has surfaced. A few conservative publications claimed that Eggs Benedict was proof that federal funding for the arts should be cut entirely, which I found ridiculous. No federal funds were spent on this project. I paid for it all out of pocket, like most artists do. However, I see no reason why this piece or any other piece of artwork  gives reason to condone censorship, or the removal of federal funding for the arts. Good art often makes people uncomfortable as it asks viewers to reconsider aspects of their lives that are often accepted, denied, or just plain taboo.

The online comments have been incredible. From the anonymity of their computer armchairs, commenters have both celebrated and condemned the artwork. Some have celebrated or condemned me as a person. From what I have seen (and yes, I have peered into the small infernos of disagreement) the majority of response to Eggs Benedict has been overwhelmingly positive. While admitting this may dampen the cry of controversy from the media, I believe it makes room for the greater conversation that is at stake concerning the accountability world leaders must face when their statements put the greater good of all at risk. Over the past five weeks I have witnessed a global conversation about safe sex, scientific fact and the place of public health in relation to moral platitudes. Further, I have witnessed how important and necessary art is in creating room for these difficult conversations to happen.

MOST ASKED QUESTIONS:

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Over the past month I have been asked a number of questions about Eggs Benedict. While most of the key points of my answers have been published, I feel it necessary to take this opportunity to address a few of these questions more fully.

What do you think of all of the attention Eggs Benedict has generated? Was it expected? Was this piece a media grab?

I think the global response to Eggs Benedict signifies that people are ready to engage in a conversation about the issues the work brings up. No single person could craft the level of media interest that this artwork has received. It is a welcome surprise to me. As an artist I have very little control over how far the story of a particular artwork will travel. I simply make art because I need to. I write about it because that is part of my process. My contribution to this experience has been making artwork, writing a blog and granting interviews. If there was any media grab at all it was the media grabbing my story.

What do you say to people who think this work is disgusting or disrespectful?

I can respect that not everyone will embrace this artwork. There are also communities of people who see Eggs Benedict as a necessary and brave statement. We all may have differing opinions and ways of looking at the world, but the freedom of expression is central to who we are as a people. Respecting someone else’s perspective is civilized, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue (even if it’s heated) is healthy.

I dedicated a great deal of time crafting this portrait in a way that it is immaculate in its presentation. I encourage all of the people who have taken offense to see it in person. My guess is that you might just be surprised by what you see.

Who is your next condom portrait going to be of? Any other spiritual leaders on your list?

I would like to encourage everyone who has wondered this to visit my website. Perhaps it’s natural to think that condoms are my specialty with the amount of coverage this piece has gotten, but if you take a look at my other bodies of work you will see that I work in a wide array of materials. Each project I begin usually demands learning how to use materials I have little experience with. Material choice plays a central role in each artwork I make and is necessary in helping create the total meaning of each piece.

While looking at my other bodies of work you will also begin to notice that the people I have chosen to depict are from popular culture. I am not particularly interested in taking on spiritual leaders nor do I have issues with Catholics or people from any denomination. What I am interested in is bringing focus to a number of public figures whose statements, life decisions, or personas are reflected in the personal challenges we face as participants in our current cultural climate.

If there was one thing you could say about this Eggs Benedict what would it be?

Art starts multiple conversations at a glance. Eggs Benedict encourages dialogue about our world leaders and their responsibility to public health. It also presents condoms in a festive and positive way. Further, Eggs Benedict incorporates the plight of the poorest of the poor; women and children, in that the portrait itself is made through embroidery, which is a form of women’s traditional craft. Family planning and sexuality are woven into the very way the artwork was made. AIDS prevention and advocacy are the central to concepts to Eggs Benedict, but included in it’s message are notions of sacred sculpture, ritual and reverence.

ART FOR A BETTER WORLD:

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The events of the past month have brought me to make an unconventional decision concerning the sale of Eggs Benedict. I have decided to open the sale of this work to the world through an online auction. My hope is this will continue the global conversation this artwork has generated.  I have also decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to help fund AIDS advocacy and relief.

Eggs Benedict, which began as an intervention will now to evolve into action. Through the power of contemporary art and philanthropy this artwork will bring positive change to the world. The more generous the bid, the more good will be done. My hope is that Eggs Benedict will be purchased by an institution or collector who envisions this work on public display with the possibility of seeing it travel.

The percentage of the sale that to be donated and the organizations to be awarded funds will be decided in collaboration with the highest bidder. Once the piece is purchased the details will be made public.

I look forward to reporting back on the results of this auction! Thank you all for your interest. Without all of you, this would not be happening.

Eggs Benedict

To begin this I should start with a confession:

I believe in sex.  It is an integral part of being human.  Healthy sex makes for strong communities and happy people.  Love in all of its colors, partners and kinky curiosities is to be enjoyed by those who are in it.  Understanding the self and expressing personal identity are interwoven in our sexual experiences.  As it is our bodies that create each successive generation, healthy sexual choices are at the root of creating a healthy nation.

THE WHY:

I was eating a bowl of cereal when a radio news story perked my interest.  It was March of 2009.  A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his recent trip to Africa:

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is.  If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.  The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spirtual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self-denial, to be alongside the suffering.”

Wait, did the Pope just say that prophylactics will increase the AIDS epidemic in Africa and offer self-denial as the remedy?

Why yes, he did.

A few days later the Lancet called upon the Pope to retract his comments, saying that anything less would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates fighting to contain the disease.  No retraction was given.

In 2010 the Pope engaged the condom debate again, this time stating that encouraging condom use amongst prostitutes, with the intention of reducing the risk of HIV infection, may be an indication that the prostitute is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity.

Now the Pope was conflating being a prostitute who practices safe sex with encouraging a moral deficit.  Had he any compassion for their position in life; their poverty, their plight?

Apparently not.

Over the next few years Benedict’s fervent embrace of a more “traditional” Catholic doctrine continued to make me wonder what time-machine he had fallen out of. Homosexuality as a moral disease…  Same sex-marriage as a threat to world peace… Gender as clearly definable…  Each time a new message from the Pope hit the airwaves I became frustratingly perplexed.  I felt I had to do something.

Eggs Benedict exists because I believe it is my responsibility as an able bodied person living in our current cultural climate to incite further discussion about the direction our leaders point us in.  As an artist, my thoughts manifest in my artwork best.  It’s a pretty simple relationship.  During the production of this piece I made many intentional choices; from selecting a cheerful moment from the Pope’s earlier years to reproduce, to going with a festive color palette, to putting great care into the making of the portrait to ensure that both the subject matter and the materials were on some level being celebrated in the midst of the questions that their combination raises.  I made these choices because it is important to me that this piece opens more doors than it closes, by remaining both glorious and irreverent at the same time, if that’s possible. Like other portraits I have made, I see Eggs Benedict conceptually existing in a grey space between the black/white nature of political statements- creating room for a nuanced experience that has an added degree of complexity.

 THE HOW:

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In May of 2009 I made a donation to a health advocacy group in exchange for 6,000 condoms.  The piece was intended to be quite a bit smaller than it is now, as I had chosen a 1/4″ mesh to weave the condoms through.  The focus of the image was limited mainly to the Pope’s face.  It was while creating the tonal range by inter-stuffing the condoms that I ran into my first hurdle.  The small grid wouldn’t allow for the thickness of 3-4 condoms that some of the tones required.  I needed to scale up.

I also began to notice that the latex was breaking down, and that several of the first condoms woven in the grid were beginning to become ashy, losing their vibrancy.  I was presented with the second hurdle; learning more about latex degradation.  In order to do that I needed to spend some time experimenting with different preservation techniques and essentially put constructing the piece on the back burner.

Over the next year and a half I laid condoms in window sills, on top of book shelves under fluorescent and incandescent lights, dipped them in castor oil, Astroglide, sprayed them with WD-40 and Armorall, as well as dusted them with talc.  The results were pretty clear.   First and most importantly, the condoms needed to be non-lubricated in order to inter-stuff  them in an expedient fashion. Secondly, condoms treated with spermicidal lubricant, Armorall, WD-40, and castor oil crumbled or became more prone to snapping within 12-18 months. Talc, though effective in sealing the latex dulled the colors. Sunlight, fluorescents and heat also were a detriment to the material.

These findings led me back to the design board, this time drawing up an airtight case with plexiglass sides on the front and back that I could then flood with argon gas.  Filing it with a silicone based lubricant was also a preservation option I played with (and the idea of putting a bubbler in could be fun) but the cost and weight of the piece would increase greatly.  Gas being more cost effective and less gimmicky won.

I also decided to include more of the Pope’s body in the image, including the gesture of his hands and more papal garb.  The stitching surface had trippled by 2012, which brought me to the third hurdle: Finding more condoms.

By the fall of 2012 I had relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin over 1,000 miles from my first condom connection in Memphis, Tennessee.  My second search began similarly to how I had conducted it before.  I began by calling and visiting AIDS testing centers and calling health advocacy groups in search of a helpful person who might be interested trading donations for condoms.

Trying to create a connection this way was tenuous to say the least.  First off, the organizations that supply testing and sexual health information have been under fire for a number of years, and more recently following several conservative referendums are walking both political and financial tight ropes.  The last thing I wanted to do was in anyway jeopardize the crucial services they provide by involving them in a project that could potentially be politically inflammatory.  I found myself skirting the exact content of the piece until the last minute with the first two organizations I spoke with, as if the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule might make it easier for both of us.  I felt like I was seeking contraband, goofy as it may sound.  My request for 14,000 condoms in specific color quantities inevitably brought the conversation around to the goals of the project.  Thankfully it was embraced by each person I spoke with.

While waiting to hear back from a these contacts I was encouraged to try and secure the condoms by creating my own account with a national sexual education group.  As luck would have it, my new job teaching at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design had the added benefit of affiliating me with a 501c3 non-profit institution… and apparently that’s all it takes.

In mid-November 2012 the cases of condoms arrived.  I began unwrapping, unrolling, stuffing, configuring and stitching the portrait.  During those months I sat on the couch at night, exacto blade within reach, methodically slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group.  (New fact to wow your friends at the next cocktail party: You can fit 500 unrolled condoms in a gallon bag; just give yourself 4 hours to do so.)  For those of you who are curious as to how long this has taken, I began to time myself during the middle of the project to see exactly how long each row took to decipher color, inter-stuff condoms, triple fold (yes, all of the condoms are folded) and stitch through the mesh.  The answer: 1 hour and 20 minutes per horizontal line.  As there are 101 horizontal rows, the stitching the portrait took roughly 135 hours.  Unwrapping, unrolling and bagging took nearly the same amount of time.

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I finished stitching the week Pope Benedict retired.

THE PIECE:

The images that follow are of the completed stitch-work for Eggs Benedict.  I am currently building the frame that will hold the stitch-work as well as a plexiglass aquarium that will encase the both the frame and the stitching.  More images will be posted when it’s ready!

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Dimensions: The stitching area measures 41″x 51″x 5″.  The frame and case will increase the size to 48″x 72″x 12″.  When seen in person the case will be attached to a short weighted pedestal that will ensure the piece doesn’t tip over.  The stitch-work contains approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms.

QUESTIONS/COMMENTS:

I’d love to hear what you think.  Please feel free to send any questions or comments my way and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.  Thank you!  More updates to follow soon.

To visit the online auction of Eggs Benedict click on this link: eggsbenedictproject.com

New Adventures

PUBLIC ART

The rebuilding of the downtown Madison Public Library is well underway.  Since early spring Mifflin Street has been narrowed to a one-way trickle of car traffic, and the average passerby has witnessed a monolithic example of early-60’s architecture being whittled away to it’s bare bones.

The grand opening of the new space is slated for September 2013.

Thanks to the efforts of the Madison Public Library Foundation (and Trent Miller– my friend and hero) funds were raised this fall to purchase one of my bookend pieces as well as one of Heath Matysek-Snyder‘s stacked wood pieces for the library’s permanent collection. Both will be on view in the new library with new pieces by fellow UW-Madison affiliated artists Tom Loeser, Derrick Buisch, Hongtao Zhou, and Sofia Arnold as well as works by an handful of selected nationally and internationally based artists.

In October, Trent and I narrowed down the location for both the bookend piece and Daily Exchange (which the library acquired following Bookless in January).  We found a great spot for the bookends in the “reading room” on the third floor, next to a bank of windows.  The piece will be visible from the street on Mifflin and Fairchild, and be on the same floor as the new library art gallery. (Yes, the library has a gallery that will show rotating exhibitions!)  Daily Exchange is going to be located on the second floor in the center of the main room, protected from sunlight to maintain the integrity of the plastics and heat sensitive paper it contains.

In early November I met with the city architect, Bryan Cooper, to iron out a few logistical issues related to installing the bookend piece in a public space.  The gridded bookend stacks weigh close to 1,000 pounds in total and hang in close proximity to each other requiring a reinforced wall to support it.  We also had to figure out how to make the piece function within the space while adhering to the American Disabilities Act, which requires that the piece must be suspended no more than 27″ from the floor or it will require additional architectural elements, like a fixed pedestal or base.  The result is that the bookend piece will be a bit taller and skinnier than I had originally thought.  After visiting the site and seeing the space I have begun to think this all might serendipitously be for the better.

Here are a few images of the new library and my recent tour, beginning with an architectural sketch of the new building:

This is what it looks like now, beginning with the third floor:

The third floor facing Fairchild St. from Mifflin St.  The capitol building is one block up. (Photo credit: Toby Kaufman-Bueler)

The third floor, across from the Overture Center for the Arts with Bryan Cooper. (Photo credit: Toby Kaufman-Bueler)

Imagine a wall of windows here, facing the Overture.  Below the 2″x 4″ bracing there is a stairwell leading to the second floor.

The bookend piece will be at the top of the staircase on this wall.   (Photo credit: Toby Kaufman-Bueler)

This is a shot from the second floor of the bottom of the stairwell.  Trent and I are checking out what the view will be of the bookends from below. (Photo credit: Toby Kaufman-Bueler)

On the second floor they removed the drop ceiling, exposing the honeycombed cement structure underneath.  This will be painted and remain visible in the new building.

The windows on the second floor have quadrupled in size.  I swear, every third word on the tour was “glass.”  This library will have lots of natural light.

This is a view of the first floor, which used to be the stacks- a place that was off limits to the general public. This corner is where the new children’s section is going to be located.  The purplish light against the far wall is coming through a hole they cut in the ceiling.  Yep, more windows!

If you’d like to check out more inprogress images of the library’s construction, here’s Link to construction photos on Madison Public Library’s flickr page.

Here are a few architectural drawings of the new building to help with picturing what it will look like:

This is a sketch of the windows that will be facing Fairchild St.  Note the ceiling windows in the children’s area.  The bookend piece will be on the Third Floor, on the same level as the Meeting Room.

They are working on a green roof, which will be accessible from the third floor.  There is talk of having rotating outdoor exhibitions in the garden, so stay tuned.

This is what it will look like from the Overture Center on Mifflin Street.

Here’s the architectural sketch from Fairchild Street.

This is an image of the “reading room” on the 3rd floor.   The bookend piece will be hanging on the tall narrow wall directly behind the blonde guy.

This is a sketch the architects and I put together mapping out the rough dimensions of the bookend piece on the wall in the “reading room.”  The configuration will pretty much fit the dimensions within the horizontal stripes (imagine 200 stacks of bookends gridded into a rectangle in their place).

Arch at Bookless in January, 2012

The opportunity to display the bookends on a tall, thin wall required me to reconfigure the piece over the past month.  What was formerly titled Archwill not an be an arch at all.  This challenge was bizarre at first.  Shifting the shape from a smooth slope, which has always reminded me of the houses on the hilltops in the Bay Area to something so formally simple was initially worrisome.  I feared an essential element of the piece would be lost.  However after visiting the construction site I’ve left convinced that this new shape is going to work.  No, it won’t be the same, but when I visualize approaching the piece while ascending the stairs from the second floor, watching it take shape from below- or imagine how it’s height along the 16′ wall will accentuate the new vaulted ceilings, I am excited for it.  This incarnation of the bookends is more reflective of the building structures that surround capitol square, which works with the site.

As mentioned in the paragraphs leading up to this, finding the right place and configuration has been months in the making- and there are many more to follow before these pieces will be seen by the public.  I am truly thankful for the people involved in this undertaking that believe in the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in the midst of managing the logistics of creating a conducive space for public life.  I’m looking forward to what’s next.

 

Teacher Lady Hat

For the past two months I have been teaching in the sculpture department at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.  My class is based in the foundry with an emphasis in bronze and aluminum casting.   The course curriculum I’ve put together this semester is as conceptually focused as it it materially based- and because of that the students have been producing work that is mixed-media as well as performative, in tandem with their existing interests and bodies of work.

It might be surprising to imagine me running around with a crucible of molten metal and team of students, but I actually have a history with the stuff.  Bronze casting was my very favorite thing to do in my first incarnation as an undergraduate student.  I first started taking my degree seriously when pouring bronze, and even after I left school and moved to the Bay Area, all of the great ideas I would draw out (between waitressing and rock climbing excursions) would inevitably find their way back to bronze.

Before the pour, NMHU 2007

During that break in school I didn’t have access to a metal studio, so I adapted the mold making skills I’d picked up in the foundry to my environment (often times it was a shared apartment kitchen or balcony).  First I learned about alginate and plaster, then vinyls and rubbers.  Moving ahead several years, and most recently I’ve been slip-casting porcelain- yet another mold dependent process.  The ironic thing now is, sometimes the mold is my favorite part of the piece.  Yet another lesson in learning to love what you first resist.

All that said, it has been awhile since I have been in the foundry environment.  Its so much less macho than I remember.  The environment at MIAD is without bravado, there is way less risky behavior and lots of question asking.  The metal pours are yelling free.  Rather, as a class we choreograph the pour a few times in the class before the scheduled date and then once on the day of.  This creates an environment where the students call out to each other during the process.  Though I helped direct my class through a few moments in out last aluminum pour, I left strongly convinced they will in a short time be capable of doing it without me.

So this semester my class is working on issues of multiplicity, fixing and mending as well as the phantasmagoric in their projects.  Every project begins with a reading… yes, reading, which leads to lots of drawing and THEN we make stuff.  Mold-making skills are a must in the class, and so we’ve spent afternoons imagining the space around objects, visualizing draft while getting coated in plaster, alginate, caulking and now silicone. Like many things, thinking in invisible separable-part space that surrounds all objects does become easier (and even strangely addictive for some).

This job, the foundry and many of the metal techniques I have been teaching are all thanks to Jill Sebastian.  Jill, while also tackling numerous public art projects here and beyond, is the head of the Sculpture department at MIAD.  She offered me the opportunity to teach earlier this summer, which I happily accepted.  Since starting the job I’ve had to pinch myself several times for being so fortunate.  I survived grad school and now have a great mentor and 10 bright students.  I couldn’t be happier.

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With limited time in the studio I have turned to altering a collection of commemorative plates I’ve amassed over the past two years.  I began collecting plates during a period when I was looking to develop a rapid way to move through ideas.  As many of the ways I make art are process laden and time consuming, the plates have provided a great place where I can loosen up and try things out.

My plate altering process require shelf paper, sharp exacto blades and a sandblaster.  Depending on the image I either remove existing details from the found images or I’ll erase silhouettes of objects that were never there.

Here are some recent pieces:

Three Season Home

Three Season Home (detail Spring)

In 3 Season Home I’ve erased “for sale” signs into the yards of a Currier & Ives collection that celebrates American homes through the seasons.  I see this act as an intervention that points to a changing ways we envision the permanence of house and home.

To see more detailed images from this series please visit my website.

On Thursday, October 11th I drove down to Memphis for the opening of my most recent show at the Wrong Again Gallery run by Greely Myatt.  The exhibition is called, Behind Closed Doors: An Evening of Rockwellian Taboo.  It runs from Saturday, October 13th thru Halloween.

Behind Closed Doors at the Wrong Again Gallery (gallery is closed)

Behind Closed Doors at the Wrong Again Gallery (gallery is open)

Detail shot.

Detail of Grandpa’s Candlestick

Exhibition statement:

I removed the figures on this series of plates to bring a renewed focus to the content of the imagery on them, specifically the relationship between adult and child. This intervention highlights the expressions on the adults faces in Rockwell’s work, drawing attention to a cultural shift in normative displays of parental behavior over the past 60 years.

I see the erasure as an agent that directly challenges the age old adage of “being seen and not heard,” a practice that leaves little room for any agency at all. The white silhouettes combined with the remaining imagery for me, reveal uncannily dark narrative undertones, which I believe are representative of Rockwell’s personal struggles with family, intimacy and isolation.

At Your Service

After a year of proposals, fundraising, working with artists, writers, photographers and publishers- Amelia Toelke and I opened At Your Service at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin.  The show ran from July 2nd thru September 16th, exhibiting plate based works by Gesine Hackenberg, Molly Hatch, Garth Johnson, Sue Johnson, Amelia and myself.  We produced a catalogue for the show that featured writings by Lisa Gralnick and Garth Johnson with photography by Jim Escalante.

It was an incredible experience, unlike any project I’ve been involved in.

Here are a few gallery photos of the installation of the show taken by Sarah Jane Ripp.  (Click here to see more from the catalogue, learn more about the artists, or the reception.)

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At Your Service exhibition statement:

Our lives circle the plate. Like clockwork we turn to them when we are hungry, enjoying the way they complement our food with their color, patterning and design.  They facilitate everyday utopian moments, quieting the labors of production that build each meal.  While food is one of the first descriptions one will give of their culture, it is the plate that holds it all.

It seems strange then that the common plate is rarely examined for its broader social and cultural significance. While it is true that they provide a utilitarian support for the food we eat, adorn walls as decoration and commemorate events and places, they also behave as sites for cultural reflection.

The impetus for At Your Service began with Niki Johnson and Amelia Toelke’s  desire to exhibit with artists who had inspired them. During the first two years of their friendship Johnson and  Toelke independently began using the plate in their artwork. Their shared interest in these objects led to conversations that ranged from the utilitarian to the decorative, from issues of the domestic to innovations in design. Through their research and conversations they learned of a small group of working artists who were similarly using the plate as a site for cultural intervention and formal exploration.

Johnson and Toelke brought together the artists and writers in At Your Service in an effort to  facilitate broader discussions of what the plate can mean.  The inherent tropes of kitsch, commemoration, decoration, adornment, preciousness and historical virtue are both celebrated and made suspect by the works on display.

“Our hope is that the wide scope of work in this exhibition provides an experience that encourages viewers to incorporate their own stories and experiences. Though the exhibition focuses on the plate, it ultimately fosters a dialogue about the inherent qualities of everyday objects and the impact they have on our daily lives.” –Niki Johnson and Amelia Toelke

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Now that the exhibition at the Overture has ended, Amelia and I are focusing our energies on securing future exhibitions for At Your Service for 2014.  Our hope is that we will be able to include a few more artists, as to broaden the dialogue of this show.  Wish us luck!

For more information on the the show please visit:

www.atyourserviceexhibition.wordpress.com

Moving on up.

In May I had my final exhibition in the MFA program at UW-Madison.

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Exhibition/Artist Statement:

My work over the past year engages the space between places–specifically the experience of the transient, the displaced and the uprooted.  Each piece in this exhibition frames a portrait of separation in which place and belonging mix with apparitions of desire.  My affinity with material transformation during this period has focused on issues of fragility and fortification, recasting objects associated with house and home as symbolic agents of crisis.

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Towards the end of the exhibition I met with my committee and completed my oral defense.  In comparison with my MA/MFA qualifiers, which happened the year before, the experience was surprisingly simple.  I think what best explains the difference between the meetings is this: at my MA/MFA qualifiers I thought I knew why I made the work, where as at my MFA defense I had spent a year rooting down and researching for the exhibition. The process helped me understand beyond any doubt or concern, how the pieces worked within the show.  In the year between my MA and my MFA I learned a great deal about the value of speaking from a position of personal truth, and I believe understanding this greatly effected what I gained from the experience of final defense.

I am ever thankful for the experience I had in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and would like to take a moment to thank the people who helped me through this process:

Many thanks to Aris Georgiades and Gail Simpson for bringing me into the Sculpture Department, to Laurie Beth Clark for being my advocate at every turn and bringing me such a wealth of knowledge in your classes, to Stephen Hilyard for challenging me to make smarter work and showing me that and artist’s strength can also be their weakness, to Tom Jones for your ear and your eyes, to Paul Sacaridiz for welcoming me into the Ceramics Department in my final year and trusting that I could take on a new beast so late in the game, to Sarah FitzSimons for mentoring me through my first semester teaching Sculpture and of course to Michael Jay McClure hiring me as an Art History TA, a job that has made me sound all the more clever ever since. Beyond this I would like to extend a broad thanks to all of the faculty I worked with and to the visiting artists who shared their time with me over the past three years.  I hope our paths continue to cross.  Many thanks to my close friends for your camaraderie and critique.  I wouldn’t have survived without you.  And lastly, a huge thank you to my family for their incredible support.  We did it!