A conversation with Amanda Browder about art, community and Las Vegas, the Land of Hidden Gems
This past spring, Brooklyn-based artist Amanda Browder was invited to Las Vegas as the inaugural Transformation Fellow in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I teach. Browder makes monumental, vibrantly colored fabric sculptures that are designed and constructed to be draped and formed over buildings, activating the architecture beneath. All of the fabric used in Browder’s projects is donated by the members of the local community and she enlists residents to help create her sculptures, teaching everyone who attends a public sewing day to pin, sew or both. During her Las Vegas Transformation Fellowship, Browder, with members of the UNLV and Las Vegas communities, composed and installed The Land of Hidden Gems on UNLV’s Archie C. Grant Hall, which currently houses art studios, classrooms and an art gallery. This interview was conducted by Bomi Kang, Angie Saldana and Lilia Todd, students from my Contemporary Practice seminar, during one of the sewing days on campus. Lilia, Angie and Bomi worked closely with Amanda during her time here, assisting with the construction, installation and documentation of the piece. Imagine the whirring sound of sewing machines in the background. . .
Going Big: Contemporary Arts Advocacy
Lilia Todd: I had a follow-up question from your Artist Talk [February 21 at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art] when you talked about that first Rapunzel piece where the fabric spilled out of a window down the length of a building. From my understanding, the motivation behind that piece was that you were not yet recognized as an artist, so you were just going to go big.
Amanda Browder: Going big was important to me because it shows, in spectacular form, how important art is and needs to be in our everyday lives. I feel like contemporary artists will succeed if we can create a more expansive network of support. As an artist, I’m interested in making and sharing my work with a broader audience through my public sculptures and sewing days, because if more people engage with public art (or any art) they can become advocates. It doesn’t even have to be around my work. Maybe it will make it easier for them to support public art in their communities, to support their child who wants to go to art school and become an artist, to support arts funding. . .
Pinning down a location
Bomi Kang: How do you choose a specific space? You’ve been traveling the United States covering buildings, and I was wondering how you choose.
AB: Right now I'm in a place where institutions commission me to design and produce public artworks for buildings in their communities because I've established myself. As an emerging artist, I had to go scout out my own sites. For the first project I did in Greenpoint, Brooklyn I researched buildings in the area and sent out fourteen letters pitching my proposal to property owners. Three people replied that yes they were open to it, and then I selected a building and made it happen. It was the only time I've approached it that way because it was the first project of its kind I did.
BK: So people were contacting you after that?
AB: Yes. Also, I should say, a critical and challenging aspect of creating these kinds of public art projects is planning for safety and liability issues. I have to work with landlords, risk management and others to try to problem-solve the logistics of how and where the piece will be installed. UNLV’s Risk Management and Safety Department has been very involved in our Grant Hall planning. The design has to keep certain areas open because there are walkways which need to remain accessible. As a public artist, you have to be flexible and at the same time advocate for what is vital to the integrity of the piece.
Actually, the first building that I was telling you about had an entrance to the building that was the only entrance. I asked the property manager, “Can I please cover it for one day, and then I'll cut a doorway hole?” and they agreed to it. So people had to crawl behind it for a day. Behind the scenes planning for public art is really important. Sometimes it changes out of nowhere. You’ll have a commitment, “This is the building, we're doing it,” and then all of a sudden you’re told, “Sorry, this person’s not cool anymore. You have to do it over there.” That happens. You just have to roll with it and say, “Okay. New design.”
BK: Is there a reason you choose a specific location?
AB: I consider how to make it, if it's feasible; how to install it, if it's going to be easy or complicated; and I consider the vantage point. I want to make sure people who can see it and photograph it will have a good image. Sometimes the location is particularly challenging. I've been invited to make a piece for a skyscraper, it’s a mini skyscraper, in Westchester [New York], and it's kind of tough because it's downtown. There's sidewalk all the way around it.
BK: Are you satisfied with Grant Hall?
AB: This building was difficult because it is so long. I would love to drape the entire building, but, timewise, we won't be able to do that. The building actually has amazing history. It’s one of the older buildings, if not the oldest buildings on campus. I've been talking to people during the sewing days who are from the city who will say, “Grant Hall? We have no idea what building you're talking about.” They've never heard of it, they’ve driven past it for years. So when this piece is installed on the building, oh it will be bright! People driving down Maryland will notice Grant Hall and ask, “What is that?” That’s exciting.
Discovering Las Vegas
BK: Is Las Vegas different from other cities you’ve worked in?
AB: For a lot of people outside of this city they immediately think of the Strip or they think of the desert when I tell them I am working on a project here. They have all of these stereotypes they reference in relation to Vegas. This project circumvents all that. It changes the interpretation of what Las Vegas is.
One of my biggest discoveries since I’ve been here, as a person who had no clue about the city, was that there's a huge rich art community here that flies under the radar. Vegas only has one art museum right now, a variety of galleries, and doesn’t have a huge international presence. The question for me is, “how can I help with that?” I want to be an advocate. When I’m in a town for a project I'm so appreciative of people helping create my work, it’s my job to help them too.
So many Las Vegas artists have come to me and said, “Oh my gosh it's an awesome place to live, you can afford to live and work here as an artist, there's a vibrant community.” But it’s not recognized as an art community outside of Las Vegas. I see Vegas as solid contemporary. When I went back to the art fairs just last week, I was talking about the city non-stop. “How can we get the word out? There are printmakers here doing print editions with artists (Test Site Projects), there is the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, there is Justin Favela’s podcasts (Latinos Who Lunch, Art People) . . . ”
Marcus [Civin, Department of Art Professor and Chair] said that an artist told him, “I will work with you because you work with other artists or you support other artists.” That is totally dead on. It works. Your life and everybody's life is richer and better if we help each other. The contemporary art community is not that big in the end. Any kind of roundabout support is positive.
Community Sewing Days
Angie Saldana: When people come to your sewing days some of them are apprehensive because they haven’t sewn before. I’ve noticed that you don't hold their hand throughout it. Whether sewing or pinning, these people are put into a position where they have to jump in. You let everyone help each other.
AB: The whole purpose of this sewing day practice was to foster creativity and foster people's internal creative spirit. It sounds cheesy, I don't like saying it that way, but it is true at the same time. Creativity can be a lot of different things, cooking, sewing, I don't know, stunt driving. I've just chosen one task and said, “We're just going to try something that is not very dangerous and maybe you've done it in the past. You might have it in your world, like making pillows, clothing, quilts. You might have some nostalgia towards patterns in general. Let's see if we can do something together.” Because the piece is so big, because it's on the building, you never see the craftsmanship of a straight stitch or anything like that. So it frees people up to just try.
AS: When I went to the public sewing days I realized that you are teaching people about art. As I was putting materials and fabrics together, I was thinking, “This is why we create. This is a taste of the creative process for people who don't get to make art all the time.”
AB: Yes, because often people come to a sewing event and tell me “I'm not creative, but I can sew.” Okay. Just delete the beginning of that sentence! Women who sew regularly are told they're not artists. There is this perception that art is high and craft is low so that creativity has been separated into hierarchies- if you’re crafty you're not creative.
I’m disappointed if someone comes to an event and says, “I don't know what I'm doing” and then they just kind of leave, that saddens me. I feel like I didn't have a chance to connect with that person, to say, “Let me find out a little bit about you,” so they can become creative in their own world, even if it's for 10 seconds.
That’s one of the most important objectives of the sewing days for me, to be able to connect with other human beings, to discover something new through their world. Also, to connect people within a community. I'm not going to ask someone to sew when they really just want to compose color patches or talk to people and pin.
AS: What they're comfortable with.
AB: Exactly. I think about it as investigating as a way to learn.
Call and Response
AS: The people who work on your projects in your sewing days are going to be super excited when they see the work installed, but how do other members in a community who didn't work on the project respond?
AB: Other than the public receptions for the projects, I'm usually not there when people see a piece in person, so I get most of my feedback from Instagram. The work creates Instagram moments; I always have a hashtag for each project to collect all the images, information, texts and posts people are sharing.
Most people who post on social media are kind of in shock that it exists, they’ve stumbled upon the sculpture unexpectedly. That’s usually one response. Then there are the people who are endeared to the project. They know a fabric that's part of the sculpture, and they are really overwhelmed. A woman came to the Spectral Locus project installed on a former Methodist Episcopal Church, and she shared, “I was married in this church. My kids were christened here.” To see the artwork on a building can activate people’s feelings about the place or the fabric they donated.
The work is temporary. It’s not made to be there for a long period of time, it’s a short snippet in their lives. If you miss it, you miss it. If you see it, cool. I would say lucky! but maybe that's a little self-congratulatory. The work is also a celebration for everyone who helped create it. My hope is that people take their friends to go and see what they've done, to own it, to say, “We made this.”
I sometimes make books with all the screenshots of the social media posts. It’s nice to have a physical book versus just the Instagram.
AS: Who knows how long that information’s going to be on Instagram.
AB: Yeah, exactly. We could talk about that for hours.
LT: Your work tells human time. Fabric tells decades.
AB: I love finding 1950s fabric next to the contemporary fabric. You'll find a tag or something with “10 yards” or something handwritten and it's from the 50’s or some other decade. It's so cool because it is a time capsule for that time period, but then of course it's right next to whatever is there. . .
LT: In Nevada we have a huge connection with Land Art. We have Double Negative by Michael Heizer. Down the road really close to Las Vegas, we have Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains. When I bring up your work that piece comes up all the time.
AB: The story in my head when I'm thinking about Land Art is about my experience of growing up in Montana and the mountains being much larger than myself. I also think about urban and natural spaces. Land Art is out in the middle of nowhere, land is the surrounding space that encompasses the earthwork. My work deals with urban spaces and architecture.
For now, I really like using the urban space as a canvas - I hate using the word canvas - to remind people what they miss when they're walking from point A to point B, to call attention to that space, the building itself and the space and environment around it. It’s related to the Land Art experience. For example, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty that’s up north, that piece is about the walk around the spiral. If you're looking at it from the photograph it looks like one thing, but if you're standing on the ground with the piece you realize, “Oh, these are huge boulders.”
With my work it's more about getting people to look up and realize something in their environment that they have not seen in a while, through design, materials, super-saturated color and pattern. When people approach the work, I like that they go from being surprised, maybe taken aback by the scale and newness of the piece, to feeling like they could touch it. When they get close they lose sight of the piece as a whole, and it's more about that zoomed-in section that they're looking at in that moment. The fabric close-up becomes more about the stories, the patterns, that personal reaction you have with stuff that you saw as a kid. Then, when you back up it's more about this big boisterous shape. It’s all about human scale. It’s me versus a building and then the Earth, three senses of scale.
Touch the Art
BK: I volunteered at the Barrick Museum and part of my job was to tell visitors not to touch the art, “Oh please don't touch.” But I’m struck by how your work is more accessible, people can touch it.
AB: People feel comfortable touching my work because of our culture around fabric itself. It's something we wear. It's something we sleep with. It’s something that's in our environment all the time that protects us and keeps us warm. And so yeah, it seems crazy to not touch it. When people touch it, it becomes more familiar and less scary.
A lot of times you're not supposed to touch the art, and I respect that because the oils in our skin will deteriorate things, but these works are made for being a little bit beaten up, touch is not going to harm them. The work is installed outdoors, nature can just beat it up all it wants.
BK: Yes, your work is also more accessible because it is outside of the museum. I was very impressed by that. Artists are trying to get their work into museums. What inspired you to abandon that system to create public art and community projects?
AB: It’s to support people who say, “I'm not creative but...” It's also to encourage art students and artists to think outside of the box of the traditional exhibition space - galleries and museums - as the only place to show work.
This interview was edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Born in Missoula, MT in 1976, Amanda Browder received an MFA/MA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York producing large-scale fabric installations for building exteriors and other public sites. She works primarily with the community, and sources all of her material from donations. She has shown nationally, and internationally including at the New Museum, Ideas City Festival, SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, FAB Fest in New York City; The Dumbo Arts Festival, Brooklyn; University of Alabama at Birmingham AAHD, Birmingham, AL; Nuit Blanche Public Art Festival/LEITMOTIF in Toronto; Mobinale, Prague; Allegra LaViola Gallery, NYC; Nakaochiai Gallery, Tokyo; White Columns, NYC; No Longer Empty, Brooklyn. She has been published in books such as Unexpected Art: Chronicle Books and Strange Material; Arsenal Pulp Press. This year she will create a large-scale work as part of Art Prize: Project 1 and was named a Transformation Fellow at UNLV. In 2016, she received her first National Endowment for the Arts grant and worked with the Albright Knox Art Gallery to drape three buildings in Buffalo, NY. Photos and reviews have appeared in New York Times to Fibers Magazine and she is a founder of the art podcast, www.badatsports.com. The artist’s website is www.amandabrowder.com
Lilia Todd received her BFA in Art in May 2019.
Angie Saldana is currently a BA student in Art (graduation December 2019)
Bomi Kang is a 2nd year MFA Candidate in Film (2021)
Posted by Wendy Kveck July 31, 2019.