Public art was once limited to heroic bronzes that ceremoniously decorated the town square or filled up less trafficked corners of our public parks in “Where’s Waldo” like fashion. Not anymore. Public art is now a required component of many large-scale architectural projects and even part of simple urban renewal schemes and urban facelifts. Even though most of our work revolves around photographing buildings inside and out, in the last few years we have developed two clients who create architecturally scaled public art. One is based here in California and the other in Boston. Although their styles are different, they are both academically trained artists and their primary medium is glass. And they are both women.
Catherine Widgery is a sculptor who has worked in a variety of mediums and has only started doing large-scale work in glass in the last decade. Her projects can be found around the United States and Canada either as freestanding pieces or integral parts of buildings both public and private. This month Catherine invited us to Ottawa to photograph the CF Rideau Centre, a major retail destination in Canada’s capital that featured one of her largest pieces to date. It is almost impossible to describe Widgery’s work in a few sentences because almost every piece she creates is completely unique and truly designed for its site-specific environment. Widgery is a conceptual artist / sculptor whose creations are intellectually challenging, dramatic, symbolic, humorous, and often relying on the time of day and the aspect of the sun to expose their most dramatic views. Time’s Shadow is a two layered mural with one face of ceramic tile and the other exterior one of fritted plate glass. The mural is a weave of seasonal landscapes and skies that are animated by the parallax effect of the fritted glass. The mural is huge, taking up almost an entire city block on the busiest commercial street in Ottawa. It is noteworthy that the mural is on a commercial building, rather than a public one signifying the developer’s commitment to large-scale public art.
Ellen Blakeley is a Bay Area artist who has moved from ceramics to glass. Ellen started out as a ceramicist with degrees in art from Mills College. About ten years ago she discovered the joys of using recycled safety glass as her primary design ingredient. She started by scouring the streets of San Francisco retrieving shattered safety glass from broken car and bus shelter windows. She took them back to her studio where she painted the backsides of the glass and then built intricate mosaics with the recycled material. Using a cementitious support strata, the artwork can be quite scalable, with her murals reaching as high as 12 feet. Her pieces range from individual decorative tiles used in residential applications to large scale murals for hospitals, banks and hospitality spaces.
The beauty of the work lies in the nature of the safety glass crackle pattern that catches and reflects light in a variety of ways giving even simple designs an extra sparkle and depth. While visiting her studio she showed us a tile where she integrated silver leaf and white paint on the glass back to create a leaf pattern design. The effect was quite beautiful.
Last year my wife and I visited Santa Fe to get in touch with the great art scene in that historic city. We noticed an unusually large amount of bronze sculpture almost on every corner. Then we discovered the Shidoni Foundry, just outside of town. Shidoni is possibly the largest bronze foundry in the United States. It was quite exciting to take a tour of the actual working studios and see how the casting process was done. As classic and beautiful as bronze sculpture is, new materials and certainly new ideas about just what public art is have added a new dimension to the public square. Artists such as Widgery and Blakeley are rethinking our relationship to urban spaces and art making our cities better places for it.