Project Atrium – Caroline Lathan-Stiefel

We have enjoyed the Project Atrium exhibits at MOCA for the last several years. We’ve tried to make most of the openings and since this was our 39th wedding anniversary, we decided to have a nice meal and then check out the unveiling of the newest entry into the Project Atrium collection.

The artist for this entry is Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, who is primarily an installation artist. That particularly pleased me, since an installation takes ownership of the whole space, rather than just using the Atrium walls as a canvas. She uses some favorite materials in her work, like pipe cleaners, thread and plastic. Maybe not considered standard artist materials, but as she creates her constructions, the lightness of all the suspended elements lets you see through the layers to capture the whole.

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When we first went to look this piece, Wider Than the Sky, it certainly gave the feeling of something light and organic and definitely vertical, with the suspension threads reaching all the way to the skylights. As we got closer and began to look at some of the individual elements we were confused by some things. Interspersed were words printed on transparent plastics and framed in unusual shapes around some form. Works like rice, mother, South Carolina, speak out were all displayed with rice repeated a number of times. We couldn’t put that all together.

While we were pondering, the program started. The program was a guided discussion with MOCA Curator, Ben Thompson asking pertinent questions of Caroline along the way. Caroline started with slides of many of her previous pieces and gave us a feel for her favorite materials and approach to the work. Very interesting was her discussion about how she moved from painting to installations with inspiration from an installation with suspended bags of buckshot occupying an entire space. Soon she was off in this new direction.

Ben circled her back around to Wider Than the Sky and she explained that two years ago, when she was first discussing the project with MOCA, she had a different idea for the project. However, her father developed encephalitis and lost most of his speech. He was only able to say a few words – the words in her piece. Then she explained that some of the elements were based on her father’s brain MRIs and showing neural pathways he had to rebuild to regain his functionality. After that it was quite clear to understand what the piece was about.

 When the talk was over we headed back up and took a closer look at the work.

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You can see why her pieces off take a year to construct, with all the detail and small elements.

I did have a chance to talk to her a bit. She really likes the Atrium space, saying it is very unusual to find a space this big. She really likes to interact with the space, look at light and shadows throughout the day and movement.

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She was there with her young daughter, who was obviously happy that her Mom was receiving so much praise and admiration. She said she liked the piece as well. One thing we have found out is that all the Project Atrium artists have been real, down to earth people.

Now if we can only find out the plant in China that makes pipe cleaners, so she can get a spool of uncut ones and take her work to the next level.

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