An interview with 2013 Aspen Award for Art winner Teresita Fernández
Teresita Fernández’s public sculptures and installations can change the way people perceive the world around them.
The Miami native’s work insists on an active viewing experience. Her 2005 piece, “Fire,” a cylinder of silk yarn, steel and epoxy, mimics fire itself as one walks around it. Her “Stacked Waters” combines staircases with 3,100 square feet of cast-acrylic wall coverings that seemingly put the viewer underwater. Her “Starfield” at Dallas Cowboys Stadium mimics star patterns with mirrored glass cubes. And “Seattle Cloud Cover” sends visitors through a covered skyway, viewing the city itself through shifting multi-colored glass.
Fernández is the recipient of the 2013 Aspen Award for Art, to be presented at the Aspen Art Museum’s ArtCrush Gala on Friday, Aug. 2.
Her work has garnered numerous such honors, including a 2005 MacArthur “genius” grant and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. Two years ago, President Obama selected Fernández for the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the panel that advises federal officials on design and public art. Currently, Fernández and the commission are working on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, to be added to the National Mall.
This weekend will be her first visit to Aspen.
“What you hear about Aspen is the incredible natural beauty,” she says. “So I’ll go with my imagined sense of the place, and it will be interesting to see how that changes when I’m actually standing there and experiencing it.”
Fernández spoke to Time Out in advance of her trip here to accept the award.
Andrew Travers: Congratulations on the Aspen Award for Art. You’ve racked up so many honors, what do they mean to you?
Teresita Fernández: There’s internal success and external success. It’s really a great honor and it’s really nice when people notice you’ve been working hard. But the internal success is s a private kind of activity. It’s something that happens in the quiet space of the studio, and that’s inventing itself. One is always still working at something that one doesn’t quite know how to do. So the external success, it means something, but if you have a studio practice and creative practice you’re always trying to get to the next thing in your work. And that is a very private, different kind of success that people don’t see and aren’t aware of.
AT: What’s that studio process like for you? Your pieces seem so elaborate and involved.
TF: It depends. I’m usually working on a few things simultaneously. It could be really big commissions and physically large things, as well as small drawings. My process in general starts with a lot of reading and writing and drawing, and that’s the hardest part of it — figuring out why I’m making what I’m making. I do research and develop ideas, as well as meeting with architects and doing internal production meetings for the more complicated things. I draw a lot, too, so it’s the big and the small happening at the same time and working on many different scales simultaneously and trying to balance that out.
AT: What kind of material do you read?
TF: It’s not obvious. A lot of times in my pieces the research is not overtly shown, but there are historical and cultural references that go into the idea. It may or may not be visible in the final piece a few years later, but it’s essential. … I did series of works made of graphite and that body of work really took a year of learning about graphite. The kind I needed and found comes from a particular mine in Sri Lanka. The graphite really took me down a rabbit hole of learning about when it was first discovered in the 1500s and then was used as a drawing material. So it’s not traditional academic research in any way, but finding a sense of what it is that I want to say.
AT: The natural world recurs in your work again and again. How much is the outdoors or getting outside a part of your process?
TF: It is, but it’s not as literal as it sounds. In art, our ideas about landscape come from painting, and I don’t paint. But there are elements of looking at landscapes that are interesting to me in a sculptural context. I’m not thinking about a literal translation of landscape, but landscape as a kind of phenomenon, as a thing you construct in your mind’s eye — the way that we all have cultural values that we bring to our idea of a landscape. The way we imagine landscapes is much more related to my work than landscapes as a physical place. It’s a more poetic and more of an imaginary activity of projecting yourself and remembering a place.
AT: Is that why it’s interesting to place a landscape in architecture, like “Stacked Waters,” our out of context, like “Fire”? To challenge how we look at them?
TF: When you think about all those pieces, like “Fire” for instance, it’s not so much about the image of fire. It’s about the behavior of fire and how this really illusive thing hypnotizes us. It’s about the way something behaves and the way we behave in front of it. I’m interested in the ephemeral quality of it. I’m interested in capturing an elusive moment, of something that’s intangible, like fire, like a cloud, like water.
AT: With bigger installations, how does the space dictate what you make?
TF: Right now I’m working on a big show at MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a campus with massive gallery spaces in North Adams, Mass.] and the question I ask is, “Where am I?” And that question pertains to the space I’m in, like, “OK, I’m in the biggest museum space in the country, this huge industrial space.” But then there’s also, “Well, I’m also in this very American landscape, in this place where ‘Moby-Dick’ was written and where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived,” and that whole sensibility of the northeast and how it relates to American literature and the Hudson Valley Tole painters. So, “Where am I?” is a physical question, but it’s also a cultural and historical where am I?
AT: How have you integrated architecture in your work?
TF: I always say, as a sculptor, that if you make a sculpture that’s big enough people always think it’s architectural. [laughs] For me the connection between architecture and sculpture has less to do with scale and more to do with the ambulatory viewer — the fact that in order to understand the works you have to move around them and unravel them by setting them into motion. Like “Fire,” if you see a picture of it you think you understand it. But if you walk around it, the whole piece moves before your eyes. There’s this optical effect that happens only when you’re moving around it, and that’s the case with a lot of my work. So that experience, that element of time of moving through a space, which is something that we think of with architecture, is something that’s really key to understanding my work.