A couple of years ago, I was approached by a unique institution here in St. Louis called COCA, or the Center of Creative Arts, to show my work in their gallery. Since I typically work on permanent large scale installation pieces, I relished the challenge of creating work to fill this inviting gallery space that could be removed after a few months without also removing drywall.
After several brainstorming sessions with a number of people at COCA, a creative solution emerged that would ultimately combine my love of working with children with my ceramic work.
The project, entitled “Poetic Nature: Discovering the Audubon Center at Riverlands,” involved COCA’s Interchange Program which sponsored a residence program featuring a photographer, a poet, and a visual artist, (me), who all met with a special group of third graders from a University City, Missouri school. Each artist met with the children in their classroom to talk about observation skills and how they apply to the separate art forms. The skills learned from these sessions were applied to a visit to the Audubon Center at Riverlands near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The children were each given the use of digital cameras and were challenged to collect “artifacts” as well as draw pictures and write poems based on their experience of the site. These inspiration materials were then given to me and became the basis for the exhibit.
The show featured seven pieces that I created, each based on a specific poem written by a third grader. In responding to the challenge of weight inherent with the ceramic medium, I played with a combination of tile installed on boards juxtaposed with variations of small, individual clay pieces in an effort to create a sense of movement and lightness in contrast to the heavy framed tiles.
Ultimately, the show was an immensely satisfying challenge to how I think about my work. I was forced to move away from static murals to designing a show that maximized space while minimizing weight, all with the end goal of celebrating the incredible creativity of some gifted third graders.
Where does my inspiration come from?
Most often when I receive a project, there is some framework in mind from the client. Occasionally, this framework can be specific with imagery in mind, but more often then not, they are very vague and have an outline of “we want the piece to reflect the spirit of the school,”or “something that reflects the character of the space.” Though initially daunting, these general assignments are often the most exciting for me because of the artistic problem that I need to find an answer for.
When presented with one of these general ideas for an installation, my first step is always to spend time in the space. I like to bring my camera, take multiple pictures, take notes, and ask questions. I might do some research both on the internet and asking around to get a feeling for the type of people that use the space.
So where does that inspiration come from once it finally arrives after all that brainstorming? It would be easy to say that it “just happens”but I know there is much more to it than that. As a visual person, I like to think that I constantly affected by the world around me. I see things, I file them away. From some beautiful Indian-inspired pattern in a magazine to the seed pods in my garden, I try to keep my eyes open.
I think inspiration also is a by-product of paying attention to other people and how they respond to their environment, what makes them stop and look. I want my art to have a presence, to cause someone to focus and question. How can I achieve that if I am not making a connection on a deeper level than just surface decoration?
I like my art to be accessible, to be meaningful to child as well as an adult. My inspiration lies somewhere in the shared experience of what brings us joy. The “spirit of the school”may best be reflected in depicting children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie with their school in the background and a hint of the challenging neighborhood in which it exists. The “character of the space”might best be imagined as a series of sculptural birds flying, bringing not only some movement but a reference to the owner’s interest in local, fresh food, and embrace of natural themes. Inspiration for me is ultimately found in marrying your art to the spirit of a place and the people who will spend time there.
Ever since I began my career as an installation artist, I have been creating giftware on the side. Oftentimes these custom works provide challenges comparable to my large murals in their scope of design. Never one to quash a client’s vision, I have taken on everything from painting tiny hot air balloons to a wild boar engaged in mortal combat with an alligator.
Oftentimes the greatest challenge for me in creating custom giftware is taking the client’s idea and embellishing it. I may have someone ask for a cat on a vase with a special message for a grandmother and it is up to me to flush that idea out a bit more and create a vase where it is more than just a cat and a phrase. I am always flattered when clients choose me to create a special gift and I believe that as the artist, it is up to me to make their idea a complete vision.
As opposed to my large murals, giftware can often be completed within a few days which, as an artist, is a great feeling of fulfillment. Sometimes it can be hard to see the light at the end of a 200 square foot tunnel and painting somebody’s cat on a vase can offer a great feeling of accomplishment.
Subject wise, I love getting crazy requests. What better way to challenge myself than to be asked to create scenarios I have never envisioned, let alone painted with underglazes. From the research to the painting, I enjoy tackling the challenge of animals I never think about and places that I have never been.
All images © Copyright 2015 — Nikki Lemkemeier