Beyond Studio Walls

An Artist Takes Up the Challenge of Art and Collaboration

by Glen Rogers Perrotto

Ive just come out of a meeting with the project manager, architects and construction manager for the renovation of Campbell Middle School where for the last hour and a half weve been discussing Symbol Stones, a collaborative art work designed specifically for the site. All of those around the table are committed to this Art In Architecture program, a unique concept for the school district, where permanent artworks are created through a team effort with the students, architects and myself as project artist.

Three years before, I was participating in similar meetings as project manager for a commercial sign shop and display company, squeezing my own art into the cracks and crevices of time left over after a full-time job. It was then that I realized that my skills in bidding, negotiating, time management and knowledge of materials could be utilized towards my own creative work in the public art field. This was an area where my work could expand and flow beyond my own studio walls. Plotting my foray into the area of public art may have taken some unusual twists and turns, but it has led to my dream of being a full-time artist.

In 1993, the public art market appeared wide open, offering large commissions through percent-for-the-arts programs around the country. I began by submitting my works on paper to slide banks, finding that there are lots of opportunities for two dimensional work in the public art field. I also entered design competitions, once combining forces with a designer to submit an entry in an international design competition. Although my work was not the winning entry, I learned a great deal, from concept to presentation, that would prepare me for the work to come. One such proposal for the City of Palo Alto brought my work to the attention of two of the arts commissioners who later recommended that I be a speaker at their Art and Architecture forum this past Spring. Just as one would do when entering any new field, I sought out people who worked in public arts, from artists to administrators, to let them know my intentions and to get their advice and input.

I also took advantage of a series of lectures on public art sponsored by the City of San Josés Office of Cultural Affairs. This was the citys effort to educate and groom artists in the community for future public arts opportunities. I found this series of great value, opening my eyes to the possibilities of team collaboration and working with the community towards the transformation of public spaces. I was later invited to interview for a position on the Tasman Light Rail design team where I learned a great deal from the interview process. When you sit in front of a panel of ten city planners, architects and engineers for an hour of non-stop questions, you walk away with a new understanding of the process. Though it may seem that I was spinning my wheels on fruitless activities, my project was soon to come.

In August 1995, I met Bill Gould, an architect working with the Campbell Union School District on renovations of Rosemary Elementary and Campbell Middle Schools. Bills concept was to encourage the active participation of users (in this case the students) in the design and construction of the facility. I was asked to collaborate with the architects, students and teachers as the project artist on permanent public artworks for the two sites. The idea was to enhance the aesthetics of the campuses with unique pieces of art created within the cost constraints of public school construction. Involving the students and the community in the process would hopefully give the students a sense of ownership in their new campus. The students would experience working on professional quality work that would continue to have impact on their community for years to come. Finally, I would have the opportunity to utilize my artistic vision towards work in the public realm. My position as project artist was supported by a grant from the Arts Council of Santa Clara County as well as school district funds.

The Art In Architecture program began by brainstorming with the architects, art teachers and district representatives to determine feasible locations for art while the buildings were still in the planning stage. I then took their recommendations and came back to the table with specific ideas for projects. An obvious choice was to substitute the required barrier fence at Rosemary Elementary with a fence collaboratively designed by the artist and students. Our Place, a 6 foot by 140 foot fence will wrap around an existing building and be visible from Hamilton Avenue. Panels of steel construction will reflect images of the children as well as refer to ancient pictograms. The design was developed from the silhouettes that the second graders drew from each other.

Another piece, Lyrical Animation, is a series of sculptures that will be suspended from the 20-foot ceiling in the multi-use room at Rosemary Elementary. Colorfully painted shapes ranging in size from two to four feet were based on drawings from the elementary school kids and constructed out of soft foam by students from Campbell Middle School. I worked with both groups of students, overseeing the process. This work is currently installed at Campbell City Hall until the new school is complete.

In each of these art works, I designed the artistic concept after collaborating with the architects on possible locations, materials and basic parameters of the project. My strength on the team is the overall vision for each piece. The students contribution is the individual parts that make up the whole. In other words, their drawings and designs for the individual elements are key pieces to the larger finished product. For example, Symbol Stones is a project I designed that will require 400 cast concrete pavers. The students will help design, mold and cast each stone for their installation in three sites around the campus. The concept of public art is a new one for the students as well. To them art has been about making personal objects to take home rather than contributing to a communal effort.

All of the new works in the Art In Architecture project will be premiered in September 1997 at the grand opening of the two school sites in Campbell. At several community-wide open houses, students, parents and the public will be invited to see the new facilities. The public art works will be featured as part of the programming for the event.

Through my work with Art In Architecture, I have erased barriers for myself as an artist. I have expanded my range of artistic solutions by working through the team approach, brainstorming with people from different disciplines. By working with new materials, proposing projects that utilized mediums that I have wanted to pursue, I have grown artistically. I have found that working on interior and exterior site-specific works is a wonderful complement to my studio-produced works on paper and metal. But most of all, I am proud to be collaborating on works that will be a lasting contribution to the community. "

Glen Rogers Perrotto is a San José-based artist who works out of her studio at the Citadel Cannery. She is represented by d.p. Fong in San José, Patty Gilford in Chicago and Judith Litvich in San Francisco. She is currently working with the Campbell Union School District on the Art In Architecture project.

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