During our visit to the Greenpoint studio of Luisa Caldwell, the Art Ready group learned that art can be made out of anything—including other artwork.
“I like to think of these as ‘readymades,’” Luisa explained, using a term that recalls Dadaism and gesturing toward photos of a recent project in Minneapolis, MN, resembling a free-standing roadside billboard with horses running across it. To create this illusion of animals in motion, Luisa planned with Photoshop how to piece together four found commercially-manufactured wall murals of horses captured mid-stride. This project also alludes to the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the first photographer to break down a horse in motion into a series of still photographic frames.
Other common(place) materials in Luisa’s work include candy wrappers and produce stickers, which she admits she sometimes takes directly from fruits and vegetables in grocery stores that she has no intention of buying. “My relatives once saved me a whole bunch of special Venetian candy wrappers during a trip to Italy,” Luisa explained. In Luisa’s work, the stickers transcend their original meaning when mosaic-ed into bright, sprawling flowers with painted leaves. Luisa had on display several photographs of the candy wrappers woven together into floor-to-ceiling translucent wall-hangings, and some actual candy wrapper mobiles in her studio.
Luisa’s interest in craft and pattern extends to furniture as well; several students reported being especially struck by a wood table decorated with gel medium beading, whose texture almost resembled fabric puffy paint.
Luisa is sometimes commissioned to make customized pieces like this one for various clients. We discussed how a commission is different from an artwork sale, because in a commission the client dictates a specific type of artwork and pays in advance–so the work is guaranteed to sell from the beginning.
Luisa also frequently works on public art, or art commissioned for public places, such as federal buildings, transit systems, or sculpture parks (as with the Minnesota billboard sculpture). She is currently working on a series of mosaic arches, to be installed in the entryway doors of the East 180th Street 2/5 subway station near the Bronx Zoo. She was one of five finalists invited by the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Arts for Transit program to submit a public art proposal for this station, and produced the winning design. In her studio, she showed us the miniature scale models, or maquettes, of the station doors, from which the final work will be replicated in mosaic.
Like Luisa’s “readymade” works, these subway installations are grounded in strong art historical influences, referencing old master Dutch still life paintings and classical Italian architecture, but with the addition of animals (appropriate for a zoo motif.) Luisa majored in art history as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and considers her art history background very helpful in informing artwork such as this. Her MFA, also from the University of Iowa, is in sculpture, but Luisa claims she is “now learning to paint for the first time ever,” echoing an idea expressed by many of the other artists we have visited: an artist’s career path is never static and usually not limited to just one medium.
Typical of government-commissioned public art projects, the budget for Luisa’s new subway piece is quite large, in the hundreds of thousands, and the MTA also pays artists a separate design fee for putting together an initial project proposal. However, normally only 20% of a total public art budget goes to the artist, and the rest to things like materials, insurance, and fabrication. “In the MTA, it’s illegal for an artist to make his or her own project, so a large part of the budget gets paid to professional fabricators” who are trained in working with a specific type of mosaic material, and are brought in to physically install the project in the subway station.
Public art projects often present artists with such restrictions about the types of materials from which the work can be made, or how the money can be spent, or who is authorized to work on the project. Luisa explained that all types of commissions can be “tricky because clients can have pre-conceived notions, and you may not know what they have in mind”—public art is especially challenging because the work must also speak to a broad general public. Yet it can be extremely rewarding because the final work is seen by such a vast audience and becomes part of the everyday fabric of a public space.
Unlike some mentors, Luisa is interested in involving her mentees directly in her work process— mentees might help sort and organize candy wrappers, do bead work, or prepare panels for Luisa’s paintings. They will undoubtedly get the chance to create their own mixed-media projects, and will hopefully be inspired to explore new source material for their art, whether mundane everyday objects or celebrated works from art history which can inspire something completely original.