One of my students recently asked if I knew of any artists writing blogs about their process, which gave me the idea to share what's gone into creating my upcoming exhibit 'Spherical Harmonics' opening May 21st at Boston Sculptors Gallery. For the record, BSG is a co-operative gallery run by 36 artist members. Every 2 years each member has a solo exhibit... a great big space with high ceilings, blank walls, complete freedom and carte blanche to do whatever we wish.
I'll admit, I didn't get off to a great start. In fact, most times when I've finished installing a solo exhibit (typically having completed the work in the 11th hour) I feel a huge sense of relief mixed with the sinking feeling that I'll never be able to pull it off again. It was time to start that process all over again. Being faced with so much choice can be a bit overwhelming. So, in January, when I sensed the clock ticking, I did what I typically do when I have an upcoming sculpture solo...
Go back into my sketchbooks
Sketch new ideas
Revisit links of interest I've bookmarked for later
Look through a stack of books I keep for ideas and inspiration
Sketch ideas more
Make a list of things I'm curious about and would like to explore
Think and write about the overall 'gestalt' of the exhibit
List materials I want to work with
Sketch ideas some more
I see this process as mining the well, priming the pump, putting on my sculptors thinking cap and looking at the world with 'What am I going to create for this exhibit?' eyes. Usually something clicks, I finally sketch something out and that's it, that's the show, that's what I'm going to do. Then I go right to the materials. I don't necessarily know all that I'm going to do but I at least know what I'll create for one of the pieces and trust that the ideas will continue to come.
I had loads of possible ideas for this exhibit. Some of them were either too complicated, required too much engineering, were too expensive or simply just didn't excite me.
It wasn't until I ran across this image while Googling 'Quantum Physics' that the spark was ignited. In a nutshells these patterns show a cross section of Hydrogen Atomic Orbitals, where at their nucleus the proton can be found. The dots clusters are density plots where the electron is likely to be found in it's ground state (1s) and excited states. Though I was interested in the fact that hydrogen atoms are the building blocks for life and constitute about 75% of the elemental mass of the universe, I was more intrigued with the sheer beauty found at the atomic level, following an orderly natural system as familiar to us as the Fibonacci Sequence or Golden Mean.
That image, combined with the fact that my husband and I would soon be driving from Maine to Key West, for an exhibit of his, and knowing that I'd be spending 10-12 hour days as a passenger with nothing to do but... roll balls! I'd roll by day and lay the balls in rows in our hotel room to dry at night. My goal was to roll 200 balls out of clay a day and at the end of a 2 1/2 day drive down and another 2 1/2 day drive back I had my first 1000 balls made.
Upon my return I rolled another 2000 clay balls, drilling holes in them and firing them so they could later be hung on the wall. It was during this batch that I started to question my decision and asked myself what the heck I'd gotten myself into. At 200 balls a day, it took me another 2 full weeks to get to a total of 3000. Instead of dreading the repetitiveness, I started to looked at the process as a opportunity for mediation and often listened to audio books about mindfulness.
The balls didn't start out to be red and black. I first spray painted them all in groups of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. After painting nearly all of them, I decided that the palette was all wrong for the theme, too playful, not serious enough, and spray painted them all over again to be black and red. My neighbors, the mail carrier and the UPS driver, I'm sure, all questioned what in tarnation I was doing for weeks on end in my driveway, spray painting balls. I know the cashiers at Utrecht had me pegged for a graffiti artist as I kept returning for my favorite spray paint, Montana Gold.
Next it was off to buy sheets of 1/2" baltic birch plywood and lay out the balls, arranging them in the patterns of Hydrogen Atomic Orbitals. I cut the plywood in the outer shapes of the orbitals, painting them a light grey, the color of the gallery walls, so the plywood would blend in with the wall.
Next, the baltic birch was hung and I pounded nails where each ball would hang.
Still, wanting to be sure I had enough balls (no giggling here) I hung all of the baltic birch cutouts on the walls and did a 'test installation' to get a sense of what the exhibit would look like.
During this process of creating the orbital patterns I was simultaneously working on a kinetic sculpture composed of a 25 foot line of 100 lead balls to be hung from the 12 foot ceiling at Boston Sculptors. The idea was to connect the hanging balls vertically and allow the viewers engage the sculptures motion by wagging the end balls, creating a wave of motion.
The guys at New England Marine first thought I was seriously into fishing when I went there to order 100 20 ounce lead sinkers, but became interested and very helpful when I described my idea for a kinetic sculpture. Since I need so much space and just the right height ceilings, I actually won't get a chance to see this sculpture complete until I install it in the gallery. I'm crossing my fingers that I don't pull the ceiling down from the weight and motion of this piece.
I gather that when the exhibit is up, no one will envision the endless hours of ball rolling, both in my van on the road to Key West or in my studio with my mindfulness meditation audio books playing. Nor will they imaging me in my vapor barrier mask, ripped jeans and ratty, flannel work shirt spray painting 3000 balls in my driveway. Nor will they know I lay awake in the wee hours many nights, worrying about the gallery ceiling falling down in the middle of my opening reception. I hope instead that viewers take away an appreciation for the beauty and order of mathematical functions and a simple, tangible way of seeing science in a different light. I hope they will give the line of 100 lead balls a wag and see 'Wave Line' do it's thing. And lastly, I hope to remind myself that I pulled it off again, and that I should trust in the power of creativity and that the next time I'm faced with blank walls and the opportunity to create with total freedom and choice, the ideas will come again.
Boston Sculptors Gallery
May 21-June 22
Reception May 31, 2-5pm
First Friday, June 6, 5-8pm
Gallery Hours: Weds-Sun, 12-6pm