I recently spent the better part of a day drafting an email inviting my current painting students to join me in creating my next project, Heighten, an installation at the University Heights Center in Seattle that will treat the interior of the building and everything in it as part of a giant collage painting.
It's a big step for me. I have never collaborated before on my own work and I was a tad apprehensive to make this decision.
Collaging a wall is a supremely personal act of engagement for me. I respond to the space in front of me, designing and revising and taking risks and getting myself out of jams all in the moment, intuitively and with no road map. How on earth do I communicate that set of directions to other people - and perhaps more importantly, should I?
As an artist who is also a teacher, the time I spend not explaining art but simply making it is precious to me and necessary. So why take this project and turn it into something where I have to explain?
The idea of a painter collaborating with students or assistants has a venerable history. I think of Leonardo or Titian, who apprenticed by painting the drapery or the trees or a minor figure in the works of Verocchio and Bellini, respectively. I also think of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami and their "factory" approach to art production. But most of all I think of the unique late 19th, early 20th-century architect, Antoni Gaudí.
Gaudí's organic style of designing as he went must have been alarming to project backers, assistants, engineers and co-workers alike. There was no blueprint to execute, only a vision in the head of one man, and that idea subject to change as the thing materialized. Gaudí was an organic mathemetician. His designs grew in his mind like trees even as he devised the structures by which to realize them.
The image, from my college 20th Century Architecture class, that I hold before me these days is of his Parc Güell in Barcelona and its extensive curving, concrete benches, each elaborately tiled in the "trencadís" style of recycled broken pottery Gaudí invented.
I cannot find any corroboration of this online, but something my professor said has stuck in my mind all these years: That Gaudí recruited the best craftsmen he could find, showed them what he wanted, then turned them loose to execute their own interpretation of his designs. The impression I got was of his trust in these artists to participate from the fullness of their own skill and understanding. I've carried that idea with me for a long time.
I have no idea how this will go. The whole thing is a giant experiment on many levels - for the building's administration, for me technically as a venture in altering and "heightening" a space, and personally as an artist. But what is art about if not experimenting and taking sometimes spectacular risks? I am not Gaudí and I am not a mathematician, but I'm as eager to find out as my students.
Gorgeous slideshow of Antoni Gaudí's Parc Guëll by Jean-Bernard Reynier on Fotopedia