August 1, 2017
Elizabeth Catlett is not a household name to those outside of the contemporary art world. So when Silver Oaks was asked to design an exhibit at the University of Iowa in her honor, her name and work were new to me. Over the course of the project, I found her to be an inspirational and powerful figure. This was an opportunity for Silver Oaks to do what we do best: honor her legacy through creativity, passion, and communication. The residence hall bearing her name opened on July 28th. And her beautiful, important work will now be celebrated in this gorgeous 12-story building.
Here’s a “behind the scenes” look at what went into designing and installing this exhibit.
About Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett excelled as an artist during a time when African Americans faced harsh discrimination. Inspired by artist and U of I professor, Grant Wood, Catlett enrolled in the university’s graduate program in 1938. Catlett was not allowed to reside in the campus dormitories because of her skin color, but she pursued her passion and graduated in 1940. She was one of three students to earn the first Master of Fine Arts degree from Iowa and the first African American to do so.
Catlett had a long and incredibly successful career as an artist and social rights activist. Known for her sculptures and prints of African American women and children, Catlett became recognized as a world-renowned feminist and political activist who used art to inspire change. Read more about Catlett’s extraordinary life here.
“I have always wanted my art to service my people – to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” — Elizabeth Catlett
Step 1. Scope, Vision, and Direction
Understanding the scope and vision of the project was job one. The Silver Oaks team had site visits at the university, collaborated with U of I staff, and conducted background research on the artist.
Three separate spaces in the new residence hall would be utilized:
1. An entrance wall above a staircase that would introduce residents to Catlett and the dormitory.
2. A large wall at the bottom of the staircase that would tell the story of Catlett’s life in timeline form. Did you know Catlett was declared an “undesirable alien” in 1962 because she was suspected of being a communist? Or that she spent 60 years in Mexico? The timeline tells the tale of her fascinating life.
3. A seating area located in a corner where one of Catlett’s sculptures, Totem, would be displayed. The ideas was to make a contemplative area where visitors are able to view Catlett’s work, and think about her influence on art and society.
(FYI, the new residence hall is amazing! Check it out here!)
Step 2. Design
Once we had the vision for the project, we sat down with Silver Oaks designer, Danny O’Leary. After explaining the three spaces, the vision, and importance of Catlett and her work, he put his creative spin on the project to bring all three spaces together. Using dramatic photographs of Catlett provided to us by the University, Danny designed a look and feel for the three separate spaces, tying them all together in a respectful, informative, and contemplative way. He also designed the custom display case for the Totem sculpture — it needed to be lit from the inside, rotate, and be strong enough to support the 300 pound sculpture.
“She seemed like a tough woman that was not afraid of adversity and speaking her mind, whether through words or her art.” — Danny O’Leary
Step 3. It’s all about the content
With the look and feel of the spaces were set, we could implement the content provided by Catlett expert, Pamela White. There were a few back-and forths!
We made sure we had the rights to the images, we selected the perfect quotes to be used in each space, and we were careful with the phrasing for the timeline. It needed to be understandable and succinct for those just passing by, and for those who wanted a more in-depth read-through.
Finally! We were ready to start making the final drafts of the exhibit spaces to be sent to our local fabrication partner, Edwards Creative.
Step 4. Share
Silver Oaks knows that our designs need to coincide with the vision and direction of our client before actual fabrication begins. We reviewed our designs and intentions once again with our Catlett expert, Pamela White; U of I representative Shawn Albaugh Kleppe; and the U of I construction team. We reviewed it again. And again.
Once we had the final o.k., Edwards Creative fabricated all the wall wraps for the graphics. They used Sintra board panels to create a multi-dimensional look, and also fabricated the sculpture case. Constant communication between Danny, the construction crew and Edwards Creative was key to our success. “Communications” is part of our name — I’d say we’re pretty good at it.
Step 5. Ta dah!
With the wall wraps printed, the Sintra cut, and the display case ready, install began. Over the course of two days, the three spaces went from boring white walls, to beautiful spaces honoring Elizabeth Catlett. The Silver Oaks team met Edwards Creative at the job site to oversee the install, and provide a little humor. Everything went as smoothly.
A Legacy Honored
Working on this project was truly a joy. From the great team of content experts and construction crews at the University of Iowa to the fantastic team at Edwards Creative, Silver Oaks was lucky to work with such talented people. As with any project, we had a few hurdles along the way that had to be overcome. But in the end I think the final product was something that Elizabeth Catlett herself would be proud of. Check out the before and after photos below!
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