Barbara and I meet at the Molecule, a cafe at the north end of the Arts District on Santa Fe. The bank of video monitors displaying rapid fire retinal poetry is gone.
Please tell us about when art became a part of your life.
I remember that as a child I kept a small box filled with papers and bits of cardboard. I would often make collages, and wrap boxes in extraordinary ways. At Christmas my wrapped boxes were an important part of the holiday. It would be fun to create a package that would disguise the contents - a bowl might be wrapped in such a way that it looked like a mailbox.
All this gift wrapping and package making and modeling was almost an obsession. I don't know how you can be an artist and not be at least a little bit obsessive.
Were there any people who influenced you when you were young?
My best friend's mother was an opera singer. She was always traveling to Europe to perform. One day a portrait of her appeared in their house. This was one of the first original works of art I can recall seeing. I thought to myself, "What a glamorous life this woman has, to be an artist working in Europe, and to have you portrait painted..." I decided then that I wanted that kind of life for myself .
Your response makes me think of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
Yes, Sondheim is a big hero of mine. The music he has written, and the lyrics... from West Side Story to Sunday in the Park with George. That musical always leaves me crying. His music makes me think of the "Great American Songbook", and what an achievement that is.
Also, it is very interesting to consider artists whose work straddles the worlds of commercial and fine art. It is a very fine and difficult line to navigate. As an artist who has spent a great deal of my time doing just this - working in the world of public art - I have a particular appreciation for artists who can work where those worlds overlap.
In the world of visual arts an artist I admire is Alexander Calder. His work addresses the aspects of commissioned art such as site and client directives; and it also emanates from a very private sensibility that resonates successfully with the public.
Grassland 10' x 8' x 7'
For those of us familiar with your work, we think of you as a "public artist". Was it ever otherwise?
When I was formally studying art I explored painting and sculpture. Rather quickly I decided that my aptitude and desires lay with three-dimensional work. In my undergraduate years at Tulane I almost majored in English. However, creative writing courses didn't exist at that point, and I felt that I could not make any creative contribution to the world as an English major.
After Bill and I (Barbara's husband, of Baer and Hickman Architects) moved to Denver, I was teaching art in the public schools. Leading others in art making but not doing much of it myself was increasingly frustrating. In graduate school in Boulder pursuing my M.F.A. I began the process of crossing that threshold where I felt comfortable calling myself an artist.
Please describe that crossing.
Throughout all of my schooling, from high school to graduate school, I had created art in response to assignments. What I really wanted was to create art that was in response to an endless series of assignments that came from me.
After my graduate thesis presentation, one of the professors reviewing my work said something to the effect of, "Very good, now you can go keep a clean house...". That comment shocked and angered me. It was also tremendously motivating. Having a clearer sense of the kind of art I wanted to create, I was able to finally see myself as an artist and began working incrementally to live out that definition. Soon afterwards I met Sally Elliott through an organization called Front Range Women in the Visual Arts. I became a part of a supportive community of professional artists.
Around that time, cities in Colorado were establishing their one percent for public arts programs. No track record was required to enter the competitions, and the projects offered the chance to work at the scale I was imagining. I began to get commissioned work.
Is there a conflict between generating your own "assignments" as an artist and having to contend with the constraints of a public art "Request for Proposal"?
No. The decision to engage in the process of creating public art was my decision. And I have come to love deeply the complexity - the many levels of attention - inherent in developing public art. A continual series of working relationships grow over the span of a project, first with the client and then with consultants and fabricators.
The recent installation of the public artwork "Grassland" in Greeley, Colorado exemplifies this process. The City knew it wanted some kind of gateway at this site. Wanting to dig deeper, we discussed what emotions they wanted to convey through the art. And we discussed content and symbols that might be relevant. We began to hone in on the idea of creating a work of public art that would evoke the landscape of this area before it was settled.
In this experience the City of Greeley selected me based on their knowledge of my work as an artist, on my references and on my portfolio. They did not ask for a complete proposal at the outset, knowing we would be developing ideas together. This was an atypical process in public art, and very gratifying.
You are having an exhibition at Spark gallery with Sally Elliott...
Over the years Sally and I have worked together many times. When we collaborate, we look at the space and consider what's distinctive about our own work and our perceptions of each others' work. We then discuss the ideas that we are personally thinking about, and search for qualities in each other's art to pull into our own art. There is a lot of give and take. Being involved in public art has taught me how to listen, and that is a helpful and necessary skill when collaborating. I would not say that we are a natural fit, and we know that. However in some ways perhaps we are, since we are both willing to embrace the uncertainty of the process.
Spark gallery is a wonderful place to experiment.
I spy Diorama