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The Art of Collaboration

Michael Blumfield

For many young artists, creating work that has to meet someone else’s artistic requirements is a novel- and unsettling- experience. “It was frustrating at times,” says Katherine Benson, an MCAD student, of vying to create a sculpture for a private residence. “Trying to figure out what the client would want, instead of what I would want, was new for me. I couldn’t design whatever I wanted like all my previous work.”

That’s the issue that artists face each time they create a commissioned work- for individuals, for a corporation or for a community. Fortunately for students at MCAD, three accomplished faculty members with decades of experience are available to draw upon as they take on this new challenge.

Among the most experienced is professor Kinji Akagawa, who resolves the issue by letting go of the struggle between the artist’s ego and a client’s demands. He sees the artist, like any individual, as reflective of his surroundings: culturally, emotionally, physically. So to create a piece that meets a community’s needs, he literally and figuratively taps into the resources of the community.

Take the case of work done for the Department of Natural Resources at Windom, Minn. To create a meditative welcoming area to a new office building for the DNR, Akagawa used red quartzite stone indigenous to the area that has been part of Native American history. He talked extensively with area residents about what they wanted to see in their entry area. Learning that a local woman led schoolchildren on “eco-tours” of wildlife, he had the children do drawings of animals and vegetation that he then placed in the stone.

The approach embodies Akagawa’s open, democratic approach to public art. “I’m not just making a sculpture or art in the old sense of making an object independently,” he said. “I am co-producing an experience for the community, with the community, so that children will never forget that experience, working together on the project. And that’s the beginning of an aesthetic experience for them.”

It’s also a tremendously influential approach—one that has been emulated by other public-art creators throughout the region. In contrast, Associate professor Brad Jirka follows an aesthetic that responds primarily to the space at issue and what it requires. He and his wife and partner, Katherine Jones, are intrigued by sculpture and design that evokes a 1920s Golden Age of Radio industrialism punctuated with LEDs and neon. And so they look for opportunities in which those approaches fit the space.

Not that it’s easy to do so. Artists wishing to create commissioned work need to decide if there’s a match with aesthetic sensibilities, with space, with budgets, with materials to be used, with weather conditions, time frames, etc.

Like Akagawa, though, Jirka and Jones have had plenty of work over the past 20 years or so they’ve been at it. One project—just completed and across a field from one of Akagawa’s installations—is at the communications building at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Giant “towers” are attached to a wall with a sine wave linking them and video globes showing student work. The work has taken the better part of two years to install, with assistance from MCAD students Brandon Tagtow and Mitch Dose.

MCAD Magazine, Summer 2005, Vol. 1 Number 2