Don Gialanella on Feedback, Public Art and Working with Louise Bourgeois

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Sculptor Don Gialanella had a lively
conversation with Barbara St. Clair on Arts In

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Synesthesia in situ, stainless steel, LED lights and proximity sound sensors, Boynton Beach

Here are a few tantalizing quotes. . . 

. . .

Sculptors are object makers, but I consider myself an idea maker.

Although the ideas eventually manifest themselves as objects, it’s still the strength of the idea that makes the object work for me.

. . .

On applying to study at New York’s prestigious Cooper Union

The admission tests were notoriously difficult because you had to create things that they specified. The year that I applied it was your design for a useless machine and your hand holding a transparent object.

So the useless machine I designed was a machine that would turn the pages of a book, but it would obscure the pages, thus rendering it useless. And I did an orthographic projection of it, in the style of, like a retro patent drawing. 

Everything had to fit into a Manila accordion folder. So they assumed that your hand holding a transparent object would be some sort of painting or drawing or photograph.

But I did a bronze casting, a bas relief bronze cast with a little Herkimer diamond, which is a quartz crystal, glued into the center of my hand. And a stainless steel mat. And so my portfolio weighed about 25 pounds.

It must’ve really stood out.

. . .

Dumpster Diving

At Cooper Union, Don studied with famed sculptor Louise Bourgeois

I remember the first day of class. She held it at her house, which was very unusual at the time – I mean, to go off premises to go to a class. And she lived in a brownstone in Chelsea and she owned the whole building. It was one big studio for her.

So we were led into the basement and Louise was fashionably late to show up. She was very terse. She was a very small woman. And she goes, ‘You will draw, Madeleine.’ And this woman appeared in this weird queen-like robe. She stood up and pulled her robe off. She was naked, so we started drawing.

Then she said ‘You will make a sculpture.’ And she left. So we’re down there and it was like she was putting us all on the spot, you know, intimidating us. So there was clay and there were things lying around. People started making little things. And I said ‘Okay, She wants to intimidate us. I can play this game.’

So I found this huge plank, like a diving board, and I leaned it up against a sturdy workbench. And then there was this huge log, and I had a couple of kids help me lift up the log and put it on the end of the plank. And it made like, a diving board off the end — and it was very precarious and dangerous. If you were at the end with the leverage, you could knock the thing over, could break somebody’s leg.

So she came back down and she looked around and she saw my piece. And she said, ‘Who made the cantilever?’ I said, I did. She goes, ‘Very good.’

And that was her highest praise. But we were fast friends ever since then.

. . .

Black Bear, detail

After graduation, Louise Bourgeois hired Gialanella as her assistant

The first day, she led me up the stairs. She opened the closet door and she goes, ‘You will make a portal.’

And she walked away. . . And there’s a pickaxe on the floor. And I stood there, like, here she goes again.

So I start wailing on this wall, you know? And those buildings were really built. There was lath and plaster and horsehair. It wasn’t sheet rock. So after a little while, you know, I could look through and there was a bedroom on the other side, and there was plaster all over the bed and the floor from my pickaxe.

And she shows up and she goes, ‘You break through a wall without knowing what is on the other side? Very good!’

. . .

Dali Mustache, Dalí Museum

On feedback for visual artists

As visual artists, we don’t have the same audience engagement as, let’s say, a singer, a dancer or a person who appears onstage. They get immediate feedback. Either they get booed off the stage or they get applause.

And we don’t get that. We put up a piece and while it’s sitting there, people are coming by and they’re saying ‘this is great’ or ‘this sucks’ or whatever they want to say. But we don’t get that feedback.

I always wanted to put some type of a little digital recording device that would record the reactions to your sculpture or your painting and then gang it all up and you could watch. And it would be like having direct feedback from an audience.

. . .

On his newest public sculpture

I got a commission from the city of Pompano Beach to do a very unusual sculpture. It’s going to be exhibited on the beach for one year.

Then it’s gonna be loaded onto a ship, sailed out to sea, sunk in the ocean and attached to the deck of a shipwreck. And I just I couldn’t say no to that one! That is fantastic.

It’s a popular dive site for scuba divers. Believe it or not, they have the World Series of Underwater Poker tournament there.

So I said, ‘An Unplundered Treasure Chest full of gold’ — that’s what everybody wants to see.

So that’s what I’m fabricating. So everyone will get their wish.

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