Being in the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery on Wednesday afternoon felt like being on the set of a reality TV show.
Strips of cardboard hung from the ceiling like the ribs of a great beast, or lay in piles around the room ready to be transformed.
Meanwhile, installation and mixed-media artist Anna Hepler worked away at planning how best to use the next 36 hours. Her exhibit would be opening on Friday morning. Would she be ready? The mechanical lift wasn’t working, the material was offering up unexpected challenges and the minutes were ticking away as they often do.
After four days of intense work, the show opens today at the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Hepler will also have an open dialogue in the gallery at 10:30 a.m. today.
Known for her experimentation with 3-D and 2-D forms, Hepler has had exhibits all over the world, from Tokyo to Belgium to New York City, and now she has come to Durango as part of a new Visiting Artist Program.
Gallery director Andrea Martens explained that a few of the goals of the program are to expose students to contemporary working artists and to the various types of art that exist in the world today, and to give students the opportunity to interact with these artists and concepts. She said Hepler is the third artist in the program.
“And she is really starting to encapsulate everything we were hoping the program would be,” Martens said.
Martens explained that throughout the week, faculty members brought their students into the gallery to meet Hepler and to help her in the process of installing her piece.
By Wednesday, at least 50 students had contributed and there were more to come on Thursday.
“It’s been great,” Hepler said. “I think it only makes sense to involve students in these sorts of shows because they become interested. They are invested.”
She also added that there was no way she could have pulled it off without the students’ help.
“There were so many steps just to get the strips of cardboard ready to be incorporated into the sculpture that it was kind of a perfect setup.”
And speaking of strips of cardboard, it should also be noted that Hepler has never worked with this material in any of her previous pieces. Yet there she was in a room full of about 150 cut-up cardboard boxes, methodically transforming them into a room-sized work of art.
Looking up at the strips that had already been hung, and then looking around at what still remained, one couldn’t help but wonder how she would pull it off. Hepler seemed more excited than concerned, though.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” she said. “As I’m working with (the cardboard) and seeing how it behaves, I feel like I can see other pieces coming from this.”
A large part of Hepler’s practice as an artist is intricately tied with her interactions with materials.
“I’m learning from it, but I also want to impose ideas onto it, so how do I collaborate with this material?” she asks herself. “I’m not sure I’m doing the most graceful job on this round but maybe I’ll get to that. It’s all part of the chain of events”
Hepler and Martens had been communicating and planning for this installation for over a year. Hepler did receive blueprints and plans of the gallery ahead of time, and was able to come into the challenge with a concept in mind.
Hepler lives in a small fishing village on the coast of Maine. She said that increasingly those maritime themes have been showing up in her work. This particular piece is based on an image from the inside of a ship’s hull.
“It is going to be floating between these walls so that you can walk underneath it the whole time,” Hepler said. “I love the idea of feeling that you are underneath something huge, like you’re underwater going around this incredible volume of a hull. I also love that it’s a little like a rib cage or like a whale.”
Hepler originally wanted to create this giant form from wood (which she had also never worked with before) but decided on cardboard because it was more practical. In fact, two students were able to donate all of the boxes from City Market and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
“I think that’s one of the hard things sometimes about working on this kind of a scale,” Hepler said.
“There is something almost grotesque in the excess of material, so when it can be something that is just here anyway and doesn’t cost anything, it adds an efficiency to the whole enterprise that feels right.”
What will happen to all of that cardboard and hard work after the show ends Feb. 19?
“They just get to grab the bottom of it and yank it down,” Hepler laughed. “I wish I could be there for that.”
On Saturday morning, Hepler will return to Maine and to her life, and although this particular piece will probably end up in a recycle bin, perhaps in the years to come the world will see more cardboard featured in Hepler’s work.