Sunday, October 24, 2010

Meredith Siemsen

Earlier this month, ETD Artist Meredith Siemsen curated artwork for our production FALLING PETALS (a custom production for AASPI -- the Asian American Suicide Prevention Initiative).  I asked Meredith to share with us her experiences in taking themes of the show, and research from AASPI, and making art work for the lobby.  

Here are Meredith's words...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Curating a show makes me feel like a kid on Christmas. You spend many weeks in preparation and anticipation and then finally comes the big day when all the artwork arrives together for the first time, every piece unveiled is better than the last, and you are finally able to step back and marvel over all the delights you’ve received. You are filled with a sense of wonder, excitement and mostly… gratitude. 

Sometimes--as every kid knows--Santa doesn’t quite get it right, doesn’t bring you quite what you had hoped for. But… curating the artwork for the Falling Petals show on Oct 2 was one of those great experiences where what Santa brought far exceeded everything I had put on my list.

The Falling Petals cast with Meredith and Brighid. Left to right: Amira, Meredith, Anish, Erik, Brighid, and Wannapa

If you weren’t able to attend the show, I’ll fill you in on a few details: My challenge was to fill the Stage 773 Theatre lobby with artwork that was relevant to the theme of the show, and/or uniquely showcased some of the research that had been done on the topic: suicide prevention and mental illness in Asian American and Indian-American communities. 

I was connected with a marvelous local artist, Alfred Tsao, who agreed to contribute some of his existing works (and created several new pieces as well) that tied in with the theme of the show. Alfred, as we discovered, has a particular gift painting traditional subject matter in a modern style, and Brighid and I—upon first browsing through work he had posted on his website—had both fallen in love with a series of cherry tree branches against various dramatic, views of sky. He also had a few pieces we loved that were close-ups of people in the height of emotion: one piece was called Rage, one was Euphoria. It was clear that Alfred was the man for the job. His work became the inspiration… 

"Sunrise" and "Sunset" -- paintings by artist Alfred Li Tsao

As I began to dream and scheme how we might fill the theatre lobby with artwork, it became imperative to have Alfred’s work on the stage as well. I had the nerve to ask him to create not one, but three, door-sized panels that would be hung as a series on the stage as a backdrop for the performance. Amazingly he said yes!

Now, for the second element. AASPI and ETD had gathered all these amazing quotes and statistical data (about suicide and mental illness in these communities) that we needed to visually incorporate into the exhibit. Given the theme of petals and trees we had chosen from Alfred’s work, it seemed like a no-brainer to me: We needed to somehow create a free-standing tree that would be covered with these quotes, like a patchwork quilt or a… or a… mummified prince of Egypt. Stay with me here.

I decided to insert myself as the second artist in the show. A bold move, and not typically the role of a curator, but being an artist myself (and let’s be honest, a little bit of a control-freak) it seemed the simplest way to accomplish this part of the task was to do just dig in and do it myself.

But if I am really honest, this tree was not mine. As they say, “It takes a village…” If I am doing my math correctly, it took more than 20 people to make this tree come alive. 
To begin with we had 10 translators who each wrote out a dozen statements (in Japanese, Nepalese, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Gujrati, Urdu, Thai). Just seeing these translated statements written on brown and gold paper was like a holiday in and of itself! Every one of them looked like a work of art to me. And thanks to facebook and the generosity of many more friends and colleagues, there were paper donators (two people mailed paper all the way from Minneapolis), flower petals crafters, tree hunters…wait. What’s a tree hunter??

A few of the many, many people that helped make Falling Petals a reality - Artist Alfred Li Tsao, JaeJin Pak of AASPI, Dwight Sora, and Meredith Siemsen.

Well, my trusted friend Shiva (who is no stranger to installation art) offered to drive me around the city looking for fallen branches that could possibly be used to create the tree. Initially I had envisioned an actual tree in some sort of tree stand… but I wanted this thing to be big and the bigger my vision became the more we decided that having the tree put together from several pieces would be more portable. 

We set out in Shiva’s truck the morning after an early September storm, figuring the chances of fallen limbs were great, even on neighborhood streets of Chicago. We only had to drive a few blocks before I yelled, “Stop the car!!” 
I had spotted the first perfect piece of our tree: the part I had envisioned at the top, complete with elegant but slightly gnarly branches all reaching in the same direction. The other two pieces that became the trunk and secondary branch were found just as effortlessly. What a thrill! I hadn’t known a tree hunt could be so fun. After laying out our treasures on the lawn behind my apartment building we could see the cherry tree was clearly taking shape.

What followed in the weeks after was an extensive process of leaf-removal, bark-stripping, limb-clipping, branch-filing, trunk-sawing, pot-stabilizing, cement-pouring, hinge-screwing, spray-painting, paper-wrapping and petal-gluing. The night before the show, the tree was complete. I was pleased as punch. The only thing left to do was get it in the truck, wrapped safely, and hope all the pieces would fit together again just as we had carefully planned.

The day of the installation and set-up for the show was honestly a bit of a blur. I had two tiny hours in which to coordinate the tree unwrapping and reconstruction, positioning of Alfred’s artwork, and the hanging of the three enormous panels on stage. Brighid approached me halfway through the morning (she could probably see that my face was red and I was breathing heavily) to ask what I needed. I recall saying, “I need a few more of me.” But thanks to the incredible efforts (and willingness to step in as needed) by Shiva, Sarah, Alfred and his family, I was able to literally run from room to room pointing, directing, troubleshooting… and finally taking deep breaths as I realized it was all going to work. It was all going to work! 

The paintings Alfred brought were even richer in person, the tree was mesmerizing and impressive, the panels on stage were honestly breathtaking. I don’t think any of us knew until those few magical moments just before the audience began to arrive just how beautiful it would all look. I remember saying this a lot as it began to really come together… “Oh… YES!” Santa and his elves had really come through this time. 

So many gifts. I am grateful that Brighid trusted me with this important aspect of the project in the first place. It was deeply fulfilling on soooo many levels – as an artist, collaborator, curator, ensemble member, and supporter of the ETD mission. And I am still amazed and moved by all the people who stepped forward to help. All of them truly doing it from a spirit of generosity and a desire to contribute in a very meaningful way to this conversation. Thank you. 

"Tree hunters" Shiva and Meredith, standing in front of Alfred's Cherry Blossom panels

I do look forward to giving this show another breath, which we are all very hopeful will happen. The cherry tree is hibernating safely in my basement for now, but I am thinking those petals will definitely see another bloom.

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful! Wish I could have been there! Thank you for sharing.