You created a beautiful live-drawing piece for us a little while back. It interferes strongly with the urban space; where did this idea come from?
In my paintings and projects, I am swinging back and forth between working on an intimate scale, and working on a large scale. The live drawing that I did for you, in response to Wayward Plants’ question, was an attempt to bridge my drawings with the sites I love, the streets and alleyways, on a one-to-one scale. I think that wish of drawing directly into the urban space comes from my frustration with the typical reduction of scale in most drawings. It’s a wish for working life-size, and moving beyond the rectangular canvas, out of the studio and into our built environment and public spaces.
Read the Q&A with Anna Schuleit here.
One of your first larger pieces after college was the Bloom installation. Could you briefly explain this project?
Bloom was an installation of 28,000 live, potted flowers, sorted by color, on four floors of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC). It came to me after observing, as a visiting artist, that psychiatric patients receive few—if any—flowers during their stay in a hospital, unlike other patients. The gesture of giving flowers is somehow lost on the threshold of a psychiatric institution. It doesn’t seem to apply behind locked doors. Who knows why? Maybe fewer people visit, overall, and nobody knows if flowers are allowed. So, flowers are persistently missing in psychiatric settings—that ancient gesture of caring. When MMHC was closing, I added up all the flowers that had never been given and arrived at a minimum of 25,000. A team of volunteers was created around the idea, including a plant broker, and I ordered 28,000 blooming flowers from growers from all around the US and Canada. The installation was open to the public for four days, and then all the flowers were delivered to psychiatric hospitals and shelters in the area.
I read somewhere that Bloom was also intended as a chance for the neighborhood to say goodbye to the newly abandoned building. Is that something that was important in your work?
I don’t think I used those exact words, but I do think that letting go of the building in a communal way was a reason to get support for the project, and ultimately, to invite the community to see it before its demolition. These old historic buildings are filled with history—both architectural and social history—, and they can’t really be torn down without some sort of transitional passage, some sort of effort to clear the air.
Just a rumor– a painting on a wall, which reveals itself to be a face when reflected upside down in adjacent pond, also plays with public space. Could you tell us something about this project?
The museum at the University of Massachusetts Amherst commissioned me to create an outdoor project for their Fine Arts Center, which is an enormous concrete structure bordering a duck pond. The arts center has big unbroken walls, and when I sat on a bench opposite the building I noticed that its entire reflection was right before me, in the water. But it was upside-down. The squinty-eyed face of an old farmer came to me, and I imagined how, in order for it to appear right-side up in the water, it would have to be upside-down on the wall of the Fine Arts Center. And—huge. It was my largest painting so far, 40 feet by 45 feet, acrylic on concrete, and painted on a boom-lift. It took three weeks to complete after a year of preparations and sketches. The face in the water was visible only from certain angles. We spread a rumor around campus and watched as people tried to figure it out. The ducks in the water were my abstracting collaborators.
You once said you have always been interested in the US. What were your expectations and did they hold true?
When I emigrated to the US as a teenager, I imagined the US to be more chaotic and fluid than Europe, more of a melting pot of cultures. And in some crucial ways it’s true, in the big cities and especially here in New York.
You now live in New York City, probably one of the most vibrant places in this world. Does the city inspire you?
Every time I cross through our apartment building’s lobby, which is glossy bland-beige, and emerge onto the sidewalk, which is a variation of grays with variations of traffic and color and noise, I feel inspired and grateful to be in New York—but why exactly, I’m not sure. Of all things that New York has to offer, I find the diversity of people and their origins most inspiring. There is no real majority here: neither those who are born here nor those who have come from somewhere else seem to outweigh the others. New York is an ever-incomplete city in a constant, fluid state of comings and goings. It’s a laboratory for the imagination.
Are there specific aspects about urban spaces that make you want to create something?
What’s most striking about urban spaces, I think, is that they are governed by the laws of public use. If people decide to cross a city lawn at a convenient angle rather than on the provided walkway, and enough people have that same idea over time, then there will be a groove worn by sheer deviation. And that type of deviation is related to practical (tested) ownership: public spaces are, after all, owned by everyone who happens to be there, briefly. Or repeatedly. I’m curious about those dynamics and self-governing forms of use, and how they affect the arts. Meaning: how our audiences can be (and usually are) utterly stubborn participants and co-authors, no matter what.
Are there things you have learnt from New York City?
Living here is expensive. Living here is unpredictable, exhausting, humbling, and fun. Living here will change you. A creative routine in your day is crucial to staying afloat, and a strong sense of curiosity in others is perhaps the most sustaining mental resource for living here. Spending time with non-artists is a good way to enjoy the city in a multi-faceted way—and older people, and kids too. One of my jobs here in New York was teaching art at a girls’ school on the Upper East Side, and I remember the afternoons of being surrounded by kids as some of my happiest. I was also most broke at the time, but the kids made me feel fortunate. We made sock monkeys— immersed ourselves in sock monkey production—in the middle of New York City, such a serious and grown-up city in so many ways. It created an unexpected balance in my perception of the city, and more love for it still.
What are the places in New York City that inspire you most?
It depends on the day, and if you’re alone or with others. The day Michael Jackson died I remember I was at The Cloisters museum to see the tapestries, and then I got stuck on the nearby George Washington Bridge in stand-still traffic on I-95 South. It was a warm day, everyone rolled down their windows, and the radio stations started to play a marathon of Michael Jackson’s music. The whole bridge was vibrating with his songs, almost in unison, and we just looked at each other out of our cars, feeling silly and connected somehow, and maybe sad, I suppose, too. But mostly connected. Michael would have liked it. In a city so large, these spontaneous bursts of connection are also the most inspiring moments, some form of public art that can’t be choreographed, or planned, or authored by a single artist. For me, the amazing, mysterious, solemn tapestries at The Cloisters will now always be connected with that immense bridge on that day, and the hot traffic, and Jackson’s beats blasting from the cars. Those open faces all around.
If you could create a piece anywhere in the world, in which city would you like to do it and why?
Anywhere? Let’s see. The Panama Canal is a site I’ve been interested in for a linear project of some sort, left to right, or right to left. Or both. It’s 48 miles long. I’ve also been thinking about a project for airplanes going around the world: an artwork created in transit, by strangers, using language and/or color in some accumulative way. Air traffic is filled with possibilities, no? But it’s devoid of creativity, it’s only functional. Another place that comes to mind for a project is the ship breaking yard of Chittagong in Bangladesh, a project about all those barefoot workers taking giant steel vessels apart by hand, piece by piece. Some sort of collaboration with these workers, a kind of revolution. At the moment, I’m also preparing a new urban project for the city of Fitchburg (Massachusetts), commissioned by the Fitchburg Art Museum, for next spring, titled Saws, Chains, Guns, Axle Grease, and Bicycles.
Interview: Lia Pack