In addition to grounding my work in community-building, I also have to think a lot about how the making of the piece is going to actually work in each place. The hands-on, highly controlled “craft/maker” aspect of building a relief sculpture has been central to my practice, and now I’m opening it all up to a wide range of participants and collaborators. How can I effectively involve people who I have to assume will have literally no experience in making anything like this?
In the past I have created large sculptures for installation in a public space, and then watched and documented residents’ interactions and responses to the work, a surprising intervention into their otherwise familiar surroundings. Projects like Treasury Bondage, set up in Zuccotti Park in NYC, e(Scape), two large heads flanking the entrance to Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, or Emily with Smartphone, an almost-real, almost-life-size young woman hunched over her smartphone and set in places where people were likely doing the same thing.
Yet in all of these projects I was not directly engaging viewers in the choices and creation of the work itself. With Shared Spaces I am going to be able to engage hundreds in the actual creation stages, producing a sculpture directly translating their voices and choices into the finished work - a complex amalgamation of symbols built into an American flag. This resulting piece, which will remain in the community, needs to be a record of the residents’ values in a powerful, varied, and unifying relief sculpture.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on relief sculpture, and why I have chosen this form. For millennia, civilizations (and their sculptors) have documented their triumphs in wall relief sculptures, usually built into monuments and buildings for all to see. And Carrara, Italy, where sculptors have sourced pure white marble since Greco-Roman times, has long been the preferred material for sculptors memorializing their culture and time. So my wall reliefs, made with a blend of super-hard plaster and powdered Carrara marble, are linked through material and form to this long-standing need we have as a society to document our culture.
How does this help me engage a community in documenting their own lived experience? I’ve basically cobbled together a half-dozen different sculpting methods, new and old, including molding, casting, carving 3-D printing and assemblage in a way that lets any unskilled person translate an artistic choice into a sophisticated finished product, with the help of myself and my studio assistants. Participants are encouraged to bring objects meaningful to them, or select from those I provide, and place them within the evolving piece. From tractors to TV channels, social media logos to sports teams, members of the community are encouraged to select and explain the objects they would like to place into the context of the Stars and Stripes. Thus the finished artwork reflects the pluralistic voices of all who participated while also providing an overarching view of the community, and perhaps even the country, as a whole.
Now I need to put it all together in places I’ve selected. That involves finding local partners, making advance site visits, meetings and conversations, and identifying interns and paid staff who can shoot video and help with sculpting and visitor-management. To say nothing of the long lists of studio equipment and the right truck to carry it all. And I’m wrestling with an uncomfortable balance that needs to be struck: how much can or should I control in order to reliably achieve a predetermined “good” outcome, and how much should I be leaving to chance, to the unique dynamics that develop within the participants as the project unfolds? How much design and planning is helpful and when does it start choking off something magic and unanticipated that needs to happen? For now I’m living with this tension and hoping for the best.
My first stop? LaGrange, Georgia - a diverse, southern independent city near the Alabama border west of Atlanta. They’ve promised to reach out to groups all over town, from the homeless shelter to the Presbyterian Church, young an old, black and white, and even a large contingent of Koreans- there’s a new KIA plant just outside of town. I chose LaGrange because several generations of my Clyatt ancestors had farmed nearby, and am delighted that the local Art Museum director and staff are enthusiastically embracing the project.