November 15, 2012
It’s hard to get students to pause for one moment, to glance up from smartphones or tablets as they charge from class to class. But if they follow the glass curves of the side of the new CUNY Law School building and walk the arched path from the lobby on the first floor, they’ll find a glimpse of the woods in the Law School’s atrium.
The site-specific artwork, titled Seeing the Forest in the Trees, by Vermont-based artists Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman, features some 600 maple saplings harvested through reclaiming pastureland in the Green Mountain State. A portion of each sapling’s bark has been cut back to form points of an arc, gently echoing, in an organic material, the shape of the building’s curved glass exterior.
“It is our intention that the artwork includes a vitality that resonates with issues related to the law and the understanding of public service, combined with the calm related to the growth of nature,” they said in a statement.
The installed artwork measures 16 by 23 feet. Wasserman and Billings attached hundreds of saplings to a grid, suspended about six inches from the surface of 14 plywood panels, each weighing about 50 pounds. Bolts secure the panels to eight steel brackets that are screwed into the concrete block wall.
On the panels, the artists used nontoxic milk paint in rich colors. They also included depictions of saplings, almost like silhouettes. As the sun moves overhead and its beams pass through the building’s windows, shadows layer atop the silhouettes and enhance the experience of being in a kind of urban forest. The whole piece changes throughout the day with changes in the natural light, in a way, marking the passage of time with the saplings’ shadows. The artists hope people find something new in their work each day.
The work, Wasserman feels, balances intricacy and boldness, strength and calm—all qualities she believes students should carry with them in their lives and as lawyers.
Bringing nature to students, faculty, and staff in Queens is a big part of the artists’ intent.
“The closer the connection we feel to nature, the more we’re likely to stand up and defend it,” said Billings. “The way we treat our environment absolutely has an effect on the way we treat each other. If we can learn to live in harmony with our environment, then we learn to live in harmony with each other.”
That harmony is evident not only in the way the artists think and work together, but also in their process. They evenly share all the tasks, from paperwork and bidding on jobs, to design and concept, to sourcing materials and installation. Their close geographic proximity helps their collaborative efforts, as does constant back-and-forth faxing and e-mailing of work.
For the CUNY Law School project, the artists applied online, vying for the chance to create site-specific artwork for the atrium. The School’s mission appealed to both of them, but for Wasserman, there was a more personal reason for wanting to take on the project.
“I grew up in New York City and had known of CUNY all my life. I knew that it played a major role in educating lawyers who would do incredible work,” she said.
For the CUNY Law School installation, the artists presented their ideas before a committee in January, signed a contract to do the work in March, then took five months to conceive and make the art in sections. By August, they were ready to truck the artwork down to the Law School, where they installed the work in two days.
It’s hard to believe that the work went up in just two days, but, Wasserman says, after having done so many collaborative public works projects together over the years—including artwork at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, Vermont’s state capitol building in Montpelier, and a 100-foot-long work mounted on the walls of Burlington International Airport—the artists pretty much know how to prepare in advance and how to focus during an installation, so the works go up quickly.
“We try to be very systematic and try to have all the things we need. We are very focused to get [the work] in as quickly as possible,” said Wasserman.
Having family members around doesn’t hurt, either. One of Wasserman’s sons and two of Billings’s children were available to come down from Vermont to assist in putting up the artwork in the atrium.
The result: public artwork in tune with a public interest law school, reflecting a thoughtful consideration of space and how to engage the people who pass through it, both when they see it for the first time and over the course of many years. At the same time, the art brings a reminder of the environmental focus of the Law School, with materials from nature and work that is largely handmade, not machined or computerized.
This is the first academic year for the Law School’s new facilities and public art, but already the artists have a sense that their work is being well received.
During installation, some visitors gave an encouraging thumbs-up; others stopped to watch and then returned to check on the progress and how the piece was evolving.
“Installing the work at CUNY Law School was just incredible,” Billings said. “People checking in on us were so supportive, warm, and friendly. We hope the artwork reflects some of those feelings and is sustaining for people over the years.”
– Paul Lin