Prairie: Traces gallery talk

Howdy. For those of you who missed it, here is the text from my gallery talk about Prairie: Traces, my latest piece. Yes, I am one of those people who writes out their entire speech! I’ll copy/paste it as it was written (to be delivered in person) so you can get the full experience. Hee hee!

If you want to see the piece first, please visit my vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/141752197. I’ve also posted a photo strip at the bottom of this entry.

If you would be so kind as to leave a comment or hit the “like” button below, I’d be forever grateful, as it will help with my final report for my grant. Thank you!

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Thank you for coming tonight. My name is Amy Uthus and I’m a local artist. I earned a BA from North Dakota State University in art and English in 2007. I attended graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and I earned my Master of Fine Arts in ceramics in 2012.

I’ve shown widely across the United States and I’m grateful to Ted and Shari and the Wesley House for the opportunity to show Prairie: Traces here this fall!

I currently maintain an independent studio practice, making things and selling them, as well as teaching and doing private commissions. I have prior experience at a variety of studios; I was the Artist-in-Residence and Education Coordinator at RDG Dahlquist Art Studio here in Des Moines from 2012-2014. I’ve also been an International Student Resident at the International Ceramics Studio (Hungary), and an Artist-In-Residence at Guldagergaard International Ceramics Research Center (Denmark).

In 2014, I was awarded an Alumni Achievement Award for early career success from the North Dakota State University Alumni Association. Prairie: Traces was made possible in part by a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Prairie: Traces is made of porcelain and steel. Porcelain is a white clay that is translucent when it’s thin. As you can see in the photos and in the actual piece here, light passes through the porcelain. Natural sunlight creates a different effect than halogen lighting. Sunlight creates a really crisp, focused circle, as well as the parabola of light across the top of the panels. Halogen lighting creates a fuzzier, wider circle and no parabola of light across the top. The piece was designed with natural light in mind. Ideally, this piece would sit in front of a large south-facing window.

However, we don’t have a south-facing window here, so I’m showing it with halogen lighting. The movement of the light is the same, though. I have the lamp hooked up to a telescope star tracker. The star tracker is a machine that rotates the light at the same speed of the earth’s rotation on its axis. Normally this machine would be used for astrophotography – you would attach a camera to it instead of a light, and then use it to follow the stars, taking really long exposures of things in outer space without getting streaks and blurs. So, if you watch the light tonight, it will travel slowly across the piece from left to right, just as it would facing south in the sunshine.

One of the most frequent questions I hear basically boils down to, “Why did you make this?” There are several ways I could answer that question. I’ll discuss the two reasons that seem the most important to me – the prairie, and time.

This piece contrasts unyielding steel and fragile porcelain while harnessing and focusing the natural elements of light and time. The fragility of porcelain and the unforgiving hardness of steel remind us of life on the prairie: a delicate, subtle beauty belying incredible natural dangers. By distilling light and time into a single entity, we are reminded of the major roles each play in life on the Plains.

Traces’ connection to the land is familiar to Iowans, who live surrounded by growth and sky. The shapes of the porcelain panels are reminiscent of aerial views of farmland, and the texture of the panels references flowing river water.

I photographed this piece out on the prairie. It’s the largest piece I’ve ever made, but in the photographs scale is tricky to decipher because the space is so open. I love vast spaces. They’re comforting to me deep inside. I assume other prairie-raised people feel the same, and one of my goals with this piece was to allow people in the heart of the city to escape to the plains momentarily, without ever leaving town.

I had the opportunity to study abroad in grad school. During that time, I met up with a friend from high school who was currently living in Germany, in Istanbul for a few days. One of the most compelling things I saw there was the impact of human touch upon the architecture.

This subject has made its way into a few different pieces now, but I keep revisiting it because it was so fascinating to me, a girl from ND, where we’re lucky if a building is one hundred years old. Some of the buildings in Istanbul are 1500 years old!

When you have a structure that’s that old, some parts of it are naturally going to start to fall into some sort of decay, no matter how good the upkeep is. What was curious to me, though, were the places where people have inadvertently caused the erosion. In those places, the degeneration of the building’s original form didn’t seem like a loss.

For example, when you pass a marble column and absently let your hand trail around its corner, you don’t usually think you’re leaving a mark.  But if thousands or hundreds of thousands of people over one and a half millennia do the exact same thing when they walk past that exact same column, all of those casual caresses add up.  The stone corner becomes soft, rounded and smoothed into a new shape by nothing stronger than human skin. We don’t usually think about a random touch here or there affecting anything.

When you stop to think about it, how many little actions do you do each day, that you think don’t have any effect on anything in the future? I know I routinely spend moments of my time on things that I think don’t, or can’t possibly, matter 5 minutes from now. But what about 5 days from now, or 5 years from now? Or 500 years from now? It’s hard to say if any of my absentminded or unconscious actions will be present in the future in any way, shape, or form. My second goal with Prairie: Traces was to get people to stop and think about time. To think about how we spend our time, and how our actions can unexpectedly affect the future. I decided to do this by making time visible, through the circle of light traversing across the porcelain.

Does anyone have any questions?

Prairie: Traces by Amy Uthus Porcelain, steel, sunlight, time. 7' x 7' x 24".

Prairie: Traces
by Amy Uthus
Porcelain, steel, sunlight, time.
7′ x 7′ x 24″.

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Please respond below. I like to hear responses to my work and ideas, even if they are different than my original intent. Thank you!

Des Moines Art Center: Surprise! It’s Ai Weiwei

Hello there friends (and strangers),

Happy almost Easter to you all! My friend Abbie is spending Easter with me this year, which is a wonderful treat. A couple of days ago we walked around the Pappajohn Sculpture park, which has an amazing collection of outdoor sculpture, including works by Ugo Rondinone, Anthony Caro, Judith Shea, Louise Bourgeois, Barry Flanagan, Joel Shapiro, Gary Hune, Deborah Butterfield, Ellsworth Kelly, Scott Burton, William Tucker, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Willem de Kooning, Yoshimoto Nara, Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra, and Martin Puryear, Keith Herring, and Juame Plensa. That’s quite a list! It’s an impressive park.

Today we went to the Des Moines Art Center. I’m a little ashamed to admit it’s the first time I’ve been there, despite having lived in DSM for 7 months now. Abbie is an artist as well – she has her MFA in sculpture, so I figured it would be fun to check it out together. We weren’t disappointed. The Art Center is great, and it’s free for everyone to go look at. It was much bigger than I expected, even though I had been told on several different occasions by several different people that it’s a really nice museum with an extensive collection. The center also maintains the Pappajohn Sculpture park and has studios for community members to take art classes in several different media. If you want to read more about the center, the sculpture park, or their classes, click here.

One of my favorite pieces at the center was Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds. I’ve been reading about them in various publications for quite some time now, and when we rounded the stairs and came face-to-face with a pile of 250,000 hand formed, hand painted seeds I thought there must be some mistake. I blurted out to Abbie, “I know this artist!” And then I automatically added, “I think…” because I couldn’t wrap my head around the DSM Art Center’s owning any work by Ai Weiwei. (No offense, Iowa… You continually surprise me, in good ways!) I proceeded to start telling Abbie about them – how the artist commissioned 1600 people in Jingdezhen, China, to make the seeds, how they were installed at the Tate Modern in London, how the gallery didn’t let the public interact with the piece in the way the artist originally planned, etc.

Toward the end of my excited explanation, the docent in the room (who had been standing less than 10 feet away the entire time) came up to us and interrupted me, saying, “Are you two familiar with the artist Ai Weiwei?” We both said yes, and I thought she would leave us alone. Instead, she launched into a description of the work, the same one I’d just given Abbie. I was glad that she was friendly and that she was excited about the piece, but at the same time I was a tiny bit annoyed. When I’m looking at art, I really don’t like to be approached by the docents. If I have a question, I’ll come find you. I promise! It’s one of my irrational pet peeves, when random people interrupt my art viewing experience.

Anyway, another piece I liked was a video. It’s the first video I’ve seen that’s made me believe that medium might have a place in a gallery setting. Video artists, you have my humble apologies. I’ve just never seen a video that sucked me in, until today. The video is called “Flooded McDonald’s,” by Superflex, a Danish artist collective. The artists built a replica McDonald’s restaurant in a swimming pool and then proceeded to flood it, filming the entire time. I just asked Abbie how she’d describe it and she said something along the lines of, “It’s a cinematic experience that touches on the filth of American consumerism.” Curious, because what I got out of it was different – it spoke to me of our society’s complete disregard for nutrition. Either way, it expresses a forceful, sinister message with moments of unexpected beauty and humor.

It was a good art day today. Now it’s really late and I need to go to bed. TTFN