Art and Artist, Exposed to the Elements

For artists at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, the outdoors presents its own unique opportunities—and challenges

There is no shortage of art in New York City, but often, it lies behind brick walls. That’s not the case with Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the free waterfront park is billed as the only place in New York City where artists can create and showcase large-scale sculpture and multi-media installations outdoors, in a space open 365 days a year.

Since the park is open year-round, without cover from the elements, artists have to think about how their works will withstand everything from hurricanes to blizzards, like Winter Storm Jonas. Socrates Sculpture Park’s Emerging Artist Fellowship program allows artists not only to display, but also create their pieces in its open-air studios, where passersby can see them while they work. New York City Lens talked to some of the current crop of artists selected for the park’s 2015 fellowship about their experience and how they tweaked their works to meet the challenges of the great outdoors.


Artist: Kenseth Armstead
Piece: “Master Work: Astoria Houses, Building 24

Armstead's installation after Friday's snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)

Armstead’s installation after Friday’s snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)

Kenseth Armstead’s installation is a two-fifths scale representation of one of the buildings from the three public housing towers located near the park—NYCHA’s Astoria, Ravenswood and Queensbridge Houses. A previous sculpture he constructed with similar materials employed aluminum, but he used steel for this piece because of the amount of foot traffic the park gets. “The stainless steel was actually just really durable, doesn’t really change very much in the elements as long as it dries off, doesn’t really rust,” he said.

Between June and September—when the exhibition officially opened—he said he’d normally wake up around five o’clock in the morning and begin work at the park around nine, concluding around 2 to 3 p.m., six or seven days a week. This, so the physical labor required for the piece—“moving a quarter ton to half a ton of steel around a day,” for example—could be completed before the hottest part of the afternoon.

“When you put it in the middle of a park that’s open 365 days, in various levels of heat and rain and dirt and dogs and everything, and people, it’s very interesting because you’re very exposed,” he said, adding that throughout the process, park visitors would even offer him food and water, as they watched him work.

“At the end, there were a couple people who came by every day until the last day, saying, you know, it looks like you’re working really hard, but you know, it’s coming along, you’re so close to the end,” he said. “You get this sort of Greek chorus.…There’s just no really way to predict what’s going to happen.”

How visitors interacted with his finished installation while he wasn’t around surprised him. He deliberately created one of the building’s windows, which were made from tar and duck feathers, so its feathers would fall out—a reference to broken windows policing. That window, one of about 30 to 40 in the entire piece, is approximately 18 feet above the ground; another was placed at about five feet. While he didn’t intend for this to happen, Armstead noticed that visitors positioned some of the fallen feathers into the five-foot window—designed at this height for ease of view. “The arrangement of feathers in that piece every time I go is very different,” he said.

“You don’t really know what people do, but then at the same time for me, it was an interesting clue into how people thought about the piece,” Armstead said. “They would take an interest to contribute to it in some way, to replenish it somehow.”


Artist: Charlotte Becket and Roger Sayre
Piece: “Full Tilt

A side view of "Full Tilt" shows a bodega tipped on its back (Natasa Bansagi)

A side view of “Full Tilt” shows a bodega tipped on its back (Natasa Bansagi)

Charlotte Becket and Roger Sayre’s piece, an upright bodega turned on its back, represents the fall of local businesses and was conceived of, Becket said, when she and Sayre considered “ideas that referenced the ground in some way.” The concrete and dirt-filled base hints at the fact the façade has been uprooted and even though the piece itself isn’t enormous, Sayre said, “it looks like just the end of something that’s bigger sticking out of the ground.”

Becket said that changing an object’s orientation was “equally a nuisance and an interesting part of the project,” because, for example, “the minute you tip something on its back, the way that things are designed to wick water away don’t work anymore.” A windowsill in its typical, upright position, is more like a sink when placed horizontally, the artists said. They had to figure out how ensure the materials would still serve their purpose in this new, horizontal, dimension.

“Every choice I think we made, underlying it was—is the painting going to hold up to people running on it in the sun, is the Plexiglas going to fog up from moisture underneath it or is it going to get so scratched up you can’t see it, is this going to rust, is the rust going to be good, is the rust going to be bad?” Sayre said.

“I think almost every material we used, it kind of had to run through the filter of will it survive both serious human interaction and all types of weather,” he added.

Becket said that the most satisfying part of the finished project was hearing from visitors who sent them photographs—of children enjoying the work, for example. One family, she said, even created their 2015 holiday card using a photo they took with the installation.


Artist: Freya Powell
Piece: “Active Turn

"Active Turn," by Freya Powell, after Friday's snowfall. The skyline is visible behind the installation (Natasa Bansagi)

“Active Turn,” by Freya Powell, after Friday’s snowfall. The skyline is visible behind the installation (Natasa Bansagi)

Freya Powell’s piece is based on a 19th Century device called a zoetrope, which produces a sort of animation from a series of sequential images placed on the inside curvature of a drum-like shape—kind of like the beginnings of moving image. With “Active Turn,” images of Roosevelt Island and Manhattan mimic what the visitor sees when they look up from the sculpture towards the waterfront, the artist explained, before the images transition to the skyline of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Generally, in New York City, we don’t have the opportunity to see an open skyline,” Powell said. “So it’s kind of offering a moment of escape for the park goer.”

For this work, she said the photographs are printed on weatherproof styrene, a type of plastic, and that there are holes at the bottom of the drum that allow water to drain through the sculpture. In January, about three months after the September premiere of the exhibition, the temperature dropped so quickly that Powell had to change the adhesive on the images to something more flexible.

“We never would have been able to foresee that happening, because it doesn’t usually drop 30 degrees,” Powell said.


Artist: Melanie McLain
Piece: “Tactile Formation

"Tactile Formation," by Melanie McLain, after Friday's snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)

“Tactile Formation,” by Melanie McLain, after Friday’s snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)

Melanie McLain’s sculpture builds on her previous large-scale work portraying sterile environments in the style of bathrooms and locker rooms, spaces that have to, as she put it, “withstand being hosed down and having grime washed off of them very easily.”

The piece is part sculpture, part performance art. Individuals trained in acrobatics, massage, and dance move around the sculpture and invite audience members to enjoy different forms of massage and touch and interaction. The first performance took place when the exhibition opened and another is scheduled for March 5, but because the shows are weather dependent, a third performance had to be cancelled. Visitors, however, can also interact with the sculpture without the performance.

McLain constructed most of the structure in the open-air studio, a space with a roof near the entrance of the park, but completed the building and did all of the tiling when the sculpture was placed where it currently stands, absent any cover from harsh weather. She said that in order to finish the piece on time for the September opening, she couldn’t afford to stop working when the weather got bad. She built a giant tarp to cover the sculpture while she worked in the rain, for example.

Despite the much higher cost, McLain had to use porcelain tiles for the sculpture, rather than the ceramic ones she normally uses for indoor works. She said she worried that the latter would have cracked with the snow. The sculpture’s design was changed, too, when she spoke with park staff after submitting her initial proposal.

“The underneath, for example, are these tunnels that go all the way through from the back to the front, and originally, they weren’t going to do that,” McLain said. “But there couldn’t be a place that people could hide when they were closing the park up at night.”

She said working at the park for months and seeing park regulars made her feel part of the Socrates community. Some funny moments also stand out.

“You get a lot of questions of where the bathroom is,” McLain said. “There’s a lot of great things about it, but then I get a lot of bathroom questions.”

  • The front entrance of Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City (Natasa Bansagi)
  • On the right, the open-air studio where artists worked on creating their installations (Natasa Bansagi)
  • Armstead's installation after Friday's snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)
  • This window, near the back of the sculpture, is the one Armstead noticed was being replenished with some of the fallen feathers (Natasa Bansagi)
  • A side view of "Full Tilt" shows a bodega tipped on its back (Natasa Bansagi)
  • "Full Tilt," by Charlotte Becket and Roger Sayre, after Friday's snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)
  • "Active Turn," by Freya Powell, after Friday's snowfall. The skyline is visible behind the installation (Natasa Bansagi)
  • A closer look at Powell's piece shows that the images on the inside of the drum mirror the outside skyline (Natasa Bansagi)
  • "Tactile Formation," by Melanie McLain, after Friday's snowfall (Natasa Bansagi)
  • One of the open tunnels in McLain's sculpture, designed to prevent people from hiding inside the piece (Natasa Bansagi)
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