LAST YEAR, the Telfair Museums began a project with esteemed local artist Katherine Sandoz, which is on view now.
The work comprises two parts: “katniss,” an acrylic hanging sculpture in the Eckburg Atrium, and “sagittaria,” a site-specific painting at the top of the stairs.
The two works borrow shapes and colors from each other and create a dialogue throughout the Jepson Center that questions the viewer’s relationship to the katniss plant and our environment as a whole.
Part of Telfair’s ongoing efforts to support local artists, the commission will remain in the atrium for several years, where the unique lighting will change the work over time.
We spoke with Rachel Reese, Telfair’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Sandoz last week.
This project has been in the works for about a year. How did it come together?
Reese: We have this beautiful glass atrium. This building has been open ten years and I've been here three years, and it's always been part of the conversation as to how we can commission work for this space that presents some interesting characteristics and some challenges. It's been on my mind for a few years—I'm always on the lookout for an opportunity, thinking about what we can commission.
We did a studio visit with Katherine about a year ago and my question to her was, “What would you think about finding a way to explode your painting into three-dimensional layers? Take all the layers of your paintings, all the luminescence and things that are already evident in the work, and what would it look like as a large piece for our atrium?” She took it and ran with it.
How did you approach the work? Had you ever worked on a project with such unique lighting before?
Sandoz: I've experimented with all types of materials and techniques and sizes, and I've certainly done some large-scale public works, but I've never done a sculpture of this scale, and certainly not one that's hung. Because of the amount of light and the scale, I would say this is a singular challenge.
Having Savannah and its landscape already be such an influence on my work—the light, the shapes, the planar depth—I felt like taking the shapes and the transparency of the paintings to the atrium was a natural solution. With the help of Price Street Projects, with Julio Garcia—he did the fabrication, he helped with the design in the sense that he put together a lot of the computer models—we had a good idea of how it would fit. And then it just became a big math problem about the constellation. I like saying that word because this plant Katniss is in the genus sagittaria, which means archer or arrowhead. It’s a nice touch.
What about the Katniss plant captured you?
Sandoz: I found that plant in a ditch in Pin Point maybe five years ago. I've had it in my back pocket for a long time. It caught my eye because it has so many different shapes—the immature leaves are quite different from the mature leaves, and the flower is typical to a monocot. It has three stems, and during the harvest period it delivers tubers, which are edible.
Reese: I think what’s really interesting about what Katherine is doing, not just with the plant but with this work, is this plant’s sort of an underdog indigenous plant. You might walk right past it. If you’re interested in indigenous flora and fauna or medicinals, it has really interesting applications, but you might also walk right past it.
But what she’s doing here is really putting it in front of your face, literally, and playing with the scale so that it’s inverted. This plant that is only 12 to 20 inches high that’s maybe growing in marshy shallow water is now suddenly overpowering you as the human, and the human has become this little cell in the pond. Another kind of idea behind these two works playing together is playing with scale, human scale, plant scale, the relationship between you and the works. In front of this wall, you’re kind of embedded in the pond where the plants are rising up and taking over you. If you’re in the atrium, you’re sort of in the water, in the pond, maybe looking up at it. As you move, the work changes and evolves around you.
How does this work question the relationship between plants and humans?
Sandoz: I definitely think that changing the scale, asking the viewer to reconsider their position in the space to potentially ask if the museum is now the pond, is a nice addition to the ways the work could be perceived. Certainly, there's a spectrum of how you find the work. Maybe it's just beautiful, maybe it's playful, maybe it helps you to reimagine or innovate, and then there's the transformation that's possible. In the last step, maybe some sort of transcendence.
But I think there’s a clear conversation between the viewer, the work, the artist, the curator, the building, and I think it reaches out to our city—the trees, the sky. As Rachel was saying, we all need that reminder to look at our city from top to bottom and appreciate how something so small is actually part of the larger system of where we are.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing both pieces?
Sandoz: If you can suggest or augment a sense of wonder or awe, or if you can provoke questioning, I think you're helping to support the mission of such a public space.
Reese: You experience both of these works because they’re so physical; they require you to move around them, stand in front of them, under them. The atrium work changes as you move through the building. As you move up or down, it has a whole new perspective. I think active looking and active engagement is really important.
Sandoz: The building helps with that in the sense that, coming into the atrium, the glass is throwing color on the walls, and you have the rise of the staircase which allows you to see the painting in various heights and dimensions. Then, because it is an exploration of colors and layers, you’re going to have people perceiving the work from different vantage points and different experiences.