"When I was in grad school I was making art in little boxes," says Sondra Schwetman. "I realize I'm back to making art in boxes, but the boxes are really big now!"
For March's Eureka Arts Alive!, Schwetman and her husband, Patrick Williams, will be taking over the space at Piante Gallery. Their show, "Between Us," will be a mix of individual and collaborative work. Nearly all of it will be installation based.
When most people think of sculpture, they imagine those three-dimensional icons we place on pedestals — pieces that exist independently of the spaces they inhabit, like Michelangelo's "David." You can put "David" pretty much anywhere and its message and magnificence will stay the same. Installation art, on the other hand, is site specific — the room that holds the work is as important as the components of the piece itself. It's about composing objects in relation to the space around them. When "David" gets moved to a room with shorter ceilings, you won't find his head at his feet or his torso cut up and put on a separate pedestal, but installation art like Schwetman's or Williams' will always change to make the most of the space available.
"My work is not anything until it's someplace," Schwetman says, her dark brown eyes flashing. "I enjoy being able to create an environment for you to walk into so you become part of the sculpture."
Williams says, "As an American, I like my media all-encompassing. When you go see a movie or flip on a song, it consumes you. It consumes your space, and if you're lucky, it takes over your head a little bit." He pulls back his thick, black, shoulder-length curls with both hands, his voice rising as he explains his desire for their work to envelop the space as well as the viewer.
Schwetman interrupts, noting that the best installation work allows viewers to soak in the experience from their feet rather than intellectualize it in their head.
"Or you stagger around it and run screaming from it like, 'What the fuck was that?'" Williams responds.
As artists, Williams and Schwetman inhabit very different material worlds. Her aesthetic is gestural and messy while his is tight and clean. He built his career on the strong lines and intense energy of steel, while she created her worlds with fragile human figures and flowing reams of fabric.
But they not only fell in love with each other, they fell in love with a creative collaboration. The result is Metal Pin Cushion, the name of their artistic partnership. Schwetman has moved into decidedly more formal, shape-oriented territory, while Williams has realized the conceptual capabilities of fabric. It hasn't been without its bumps, though. "I'm a professional welder and have a heavy machine operator's license," Williams says, "and the scariest machine out there is a sewing machine!"
For their March show at the Piante, Williams and Schwetman have been busy collaborating on a piece that exemplifies both of their artistic strengths. Developed several years ago during a residency in Paducah, Ky., part of their collaborative installation involves both the structural strength of William's steel shapes and the curving graces of Schwetman's figurative influences.
"Orange Blue" incorporates more than a dozen Cheeto-colored cubes dripping with aquamarine silk from every angle. Turquoise fabric emerges from the bottom of each sharply defined orange hunk, elegantly flowing around the sharp corners of chemically-hardened terry cloth. The vibrant, contrasting colors are paramount, reverberating off each other. Color and weight dominate the composition, and it's clear that the shapes and materials are more central than abstract ideas. But experiencing it in person brings up questions about what it might mean.
The effect is intentional. Schwetman and Williams both teach sculpture and welding locally, and it's the physicality of their materials that brought them to sculpture in the first place. With sculpture, they get to touch their art, "rather than experience an illusion" through two-dimensional pieces. Beyond the physicality though, both artists relish making ideas into reality together. "To work in someone else's technical environment can provide inspiration," says Williams. It's a different type of problem solving that forces creativity since both artists struggle with their own desires and methods while accommodating their partner's style as well.
Schwetman eyes Williams with a quizzical smile while he proclaims, "We love working with each other. It's one of the greatest things you can have in a relationship." Williams admits the efforts aren't easy, saying, "We're still trying to puzzle how to achieve goals with two people working as equals, not independently, to achieve one thing." Once they've built a piece together, it's another thing entirely to figure out what it means.
Come decide for yourself what Williams and Schwetman are saying at their Arts Alive! installation at the Piante Gallery on March 1, from 6-9 p.m.