From the Guest Editor, Carol Mickett: The Importance of Place

October 13, 2017 by CAROL A. MICKETT, PH. D. | GUEST EDITOR, THIS MONTH'S MAGAZINE
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We are always in a place.  I am here.  You and everything else are there.  At times, we are in the same place together.  No matter what, however, we are always in a place.

We create and find our place all the time.  We have a place at the dinner table.  We have a place we sit in our living rooms.  We have a side of the bed on which we sleep, a place for our clothes, and a place for our toothbrushes.  I like to sit in the same place in a movie theater or at a meeting.  I like to work at the same drawing table in my studio or work on the same wall.  Studies have shown that students test better if they sit in the same seat that they sit in during class.  They study better if they sit consistently in the same place in the library.

I am very conscious of finding the right place to write or draw or paint or think.  I am not unlike a dog who walks around the house to find its place and circles and circles until she can finally lie down.  I too search to find the places that call to me.  I have been fortunate to find a few places that say to me, “this is it.”

Artist Robert Stackhouse and I just bought a new house.  We are now creating a home – a place where we shall live and, it is to be hoped, flourish.

The places in which we live are the most significant places in our lives.  When I think about our new house, I think of geographically where it is and how the house is situated in its setting.  I think of its structural integrity:  foundation, roof, pipes, sewer lines, windows, heat and cooling.  Secondly, I consider the outfitting and decorating of the interior and the outdoor landscaping.  I think about making it safe and secure from the elements.  I think about making our house into a home that reflects who I am, who my husband is and supports our well-being.

There has been lots of talk for some time in the art world and, certainly from Robert and I, about art and creating places.  So, does Art create a place differently from creating a home?  So, what is it that Art (I use this word in a very broad sense) does to create a place?  What does that actually mean?

A residential architect, a landscape designer, or an interior decorator may say that their art is to contribute to creating a house into a home.  I shall encourage the agents in those fields to address that issue.

So, why do Robert and I say that we create places?  We do not create houses or homes, but we create architectural structures through which people can pass or in which people can sit and linger.  People have been known to do yoga in our structures, ride through with their bicycles, eat their lunch and even get married.

When I think about Gateway Trio, our Richmond, VA, project in Gateway Plaza, or Place in the Woods in Renaissance Park in Chattanooga, TN, there is a sense in which we were focused on creating a homelike place.  We certainly wanted both of them to be places in which people would want to be, places that created a calm, beautiful environment where a person could just sit and find some refuge from the stressful cadence of everyday urban life.

This is indeed something Art can do.  It can create places or be incorporated into places to alter the everyday and contribute to a person’s sense of well-being be it emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, or just plain fun.

With Gateway Trio, we created a three-part work tied to the geography and history of Richmond, VA.  One part, River Song, is a 72-foot-long and 14-foot-high mosaic of the rapids of the James River.   The river runs from the Atlantic Ocean west through downtown Richmond.  The river is crucial to the founding of the city since its rapids prevented ships from traveling up the river further than what is now Richmond.  The crews either had to turn around or off-load their cargo (people, animals, and supplies).  Slowly, Richmond was founded in the way that many settlements were in the United States and around the world: by discovering that a river or other terrain was impassable and putting down roots at that juncture.

A second part of the Gateway Trio is Clear Passage, a 42-foot-long walk-through sculpture made from stainless steel and 72 panels of glass.  It sits somewhat south of the center of the mosaic and its glass reflects the mosaic, the lobby and what is outside the building.  You can walk through the sculpture or sit on one of its two benches.  Clear Passage is boat shaped to pay homage to the turn basin that was associated with the canal that ran through Richmond.  This canal was the first in the United States and was surveyed by George Washington and, when president, authorized its construction.  Gateway Plaza sits on the west end of the turn basin.

The third part of Gateway Trio is a series of four stainless steel flow lines embedded in the outside pavers and the floor of Gateway Plaza’s lobby.  The flow lines run from the south curb of the property through the lobby to the property’s northeast corner.  If you were to extend the south flow lines, they would go to the James River. If you were to extend the northeast flow lines, they would go to the Virginia State Capitol that was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is located just a few blocks away.  So, the flow lines connect Gateway Plaza, a site of Richmond commerce and art, to the geographical reason for the city’s settlement, and to a seat of government from which the city and state are organized.

The take away from the above description of Gateway Trio is that creating a place in a community with art entails much research, planning, and understanding of the greater place and the nuances of the community.  It should go without saying that doing a project of this scope and scale is not done alone by the artist.  It is done with a varied and talented team from the developer, architect, engineer, fabricator, and tenants of the building to the citizens of the community.  Our team for Gateway Trio was outstanding.

With our focus on place, it should be no surprise that we are intrigued by all different types of places.  Robert and I (and, now our friends) have been reading Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels.  In fact, I just finished re-reading her latest one, Glass Houses.  Her novels center around a fictitious place called “Three Pines.”  Three Pines is a Brigadoon-type place set in Quebec, close to the Vermont border.  The town cannot be found on any map and only stumbled across by those who are not looking for it but are meant to be there.  Robert and I have joked (more seriously than not) that we’d like to move to Three Pines.

After reading an article about the theater production of Harry Potter, Robert insightfully said that the Potter books (all of which we have read) are akin to the Penny books.  In both, the authors have created a place where we want to be.  It is “being” in that place that keeps bringing us back to read the next book.

Clara, one of Penny’s characters, an artist, who lives in Three Pines, responds to the question “What are you afraid of?” by replying, “I’m afraid of not recognizing Paradise.”  That declaration stopped me in my tracks.  I realized that searching for paradise or a place of peace or joy or love or plain ol’ contentment moves me.  What lurks in the background is wondering if I’ll ever find it or, worse yet, that I have but, not recognizing it, have moved on.  What secondly stopped me was Clara not recognizing the obvious:  she had found paradise.  It is Three Pines.

Art, be it visual, literary or performing, can make one look again at one’s life, aspirations, and fears.  Art can create an alternative place into which one can metaphorically step and try out other ways of being.  For me, thanks to the Clara character, I realize that my worry of not finding “paradise” was also misplaced.  For I am fortunate, I have a place at a dinner table, a place for my toothbrush and, as an artist, an opportunity to create places in urban public spaces.

In and out of the studio with dancer Helen Hansen French

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