Wednesday, April 09, 2008

THE GHOST TREES: Michelle Wilson's installation in the Window on Broad

WCA Phila. member, Michelle Wilson currently has an installation in the Window on Broad entitled "THE GHOST TREES". The Window is located at 322 South Broad Street, on Philadelphia’s own Avenue of the Arts, and is viewable from the street twenty-four hours a day. To see images of the installation, please visit . During the day, subtle embossing can be seen on the 6' x 3' sheets of handmade paper, while after dark, the installation is a work of illuminated art.

Please read on below as Michelle responds to questions posed to her on her experience in installation art:

How does installation work fit into your artistic practice?

Installation sort of grew out of my work by accident. My background is in printmaking, I have always been interested in create pieces with a sense of space – some sort of presence that extends off the wall. Some pieces just grew to be larger and more interactive. A turning point was when I collaborated with Marie Elcin on a piece that turned into an installation. I realized that I was intrigued by the integration of space into the art. Now I see it as an integral part of my work, a way of creating a place or a story that takes over and hopefully affects people in some way. I also feel it keeps me from limiting my options; I have become more multidisciplinary and open to new ideas and new ways to execute them, both in my more object-based studio work and in my installation practice.

What are the pros and cons of working in installation?

I think I’m still a newbie to installation art – so I definitely find challenges with every installation! First of all, I’ve learned if you depend on technology, something will go wrong at the last minute, so budget extra time to make sure you can get it right! I’ve also learned if you can, try to install parts of the installation in your studio – it’s important to see how the parts come together. Don’t wait till the day of installation to put everything together. Finally, I’ll add, when doing installation, try to stay flexible to a certain degree. Unless I have the opportunity to spend a great deal of time in the space you will be installing, I find that there are always surprises about the space that crop up, and I have to find ways of working with them in the installation.

The pros are that installation is a chance to push yourself to complete a space, rather than just hanging an object on a wall or on a pedestal. It forces you to think more fully about your content and how to execute your work. Overall, I think the best characteristic of working in installation is that it makes me as a artist more interdisciplinary, allowing my work to take surprising turns that I wouldn’t have thought of if I remained solely in one medium.

Which came first, the opportunity or the idea for your window on Broad, and what was your inspiration for the installation?

THE GHOST TREES is actually a scaled down version of a larger, more ambitious installation that I dream of doing, called THE GHOST FOREST. I had been proposing FOREST to various spaces, and because my installation history was not extensive, and also because I believe it was difficult for those I to whom I was proposing to envision, I kept getting rejected. So I decided to scale it back and propose a smaller version to a smaller space and hope to be accepted. After attending The University of the Arts, I had spent two years watching the various incarnations of the Window on Broad, and I was excited to try something there myself.

The inspiration for THE GHOST TREES was in my love for both paper and nature. I have a growing interest in my art in material metaphors – my chosen material as a reflection or direct correlation of my content. I wanted to create a piece about deforestation, and one that could encourage recycling. The idea of using watermarks – to use illumination to create a sense of ghostliness – came as I began to learn papermaking. I envisioned the trees that had been cut down coming back to haunt the paper itself, and remind everyone of the massive amount of trees cut down every year (30 million acres – an area almost the size of the state of Pennsylvania!). I am particularly happy that the location of my installation in right in the heart of Philadelphia’s business district – I hope that all the businesspeople that pass by THE GHOST TREES take a minute to consider the paper that they go through every day, and maybe ways that they could reduce the amount.
What challenges did you face in the creative process?

A large challenge was how to actually make the paper. I was determined for it to be handmade paper with a watermark. I didn’t want it to be a printed image; I felt very strongly that using a watermark and light would be the most evocative way to express my ideas. I also felt strongly that it had to be single large sheets, rather than sheets pieced together. I felt that piecing sheets together would take away from the impression large sheets make. So I had to learn how to pour large ( 6’ x 3’) sheets, for which I needed helpers. I’m very grateful to Robert Wuilfe, Alisa Fox, and Marie Elcin for all their help in the development of this project.

How did the work change in reaction to the confines of the space and any issues that arose during the creation of the work?

The biggest change is that it almost became two installations – it’s a very different piece if seen during the day or during the night. During the day, the ambient light washes out the backlighting, so viewers can see the subtle embossing of the trees in a cave like space. It appears much more sculptural during the day. At nighttime, the illumination can be seen, and the paper appears to glow from within. Do you expect to do more installation in the future? What's happening next in your studio?

I have a few installation proposals out at this time that I am waiting to hear from. Next in my studio I have actually two series of prints I want to complete. I am also considering trying some street performance in the fall. I also have my ongoing Migratory Books Project ( that is slowly taking off. I am always interested in making work about how people interact with nature, while at the same time making work that raises awareness of environmental issues that are typically overlooked or taken for granted.

As a sidenote, it was a lot of fun getting to be Michelle's studio assistant for this project. I've never made huge pieces of paper before, and it's really interesting to see how another artist works through a process. Then, after helping out in the creation, to be totally wowed by the final presentation. Congratulations Michelle!!!!

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