(Public) Space exploration: Laura Clarke of Site Projects champions public art

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Image: Harold Shapiro

Laura Clarke, co-founder and executive director of Site Projects, recalls standing on the Whitney Avenue overlook in 2007, her fingers in the chain link fence, watching Slovenian artist Matej Vogrincic work on his untitled installation in the abandoned Farmington Canal below. Responding to the location and informed by his recently acquired knowledge of New Haven history, Vogrincic was building boats out of Erector Set materials — originally manufactured in the Fair Haven neighborhood — and filling them with bricks, trap rock and shells that reflected the city’s manufacturing legacy and its old oystering industry. Two young boys approached Clarke and asked what Vogrincic was doing. “Ask him,” she suggested, and they yelled down to him.

“I’m making a piece of art,” he replied.
“What is it for?” they asked.
“To look at.”
“What is it?”
“What does it look like to you?” responded Vogrincic.

It was a simple exchange. Two young children interrogating an artist at work. The artist answering with an invitation to offer their own interpretations. But it gets to the heart of what Site Projects likes to accomplish. The group has commissioned five site-specific works of public art since 2004, the most recent being Night Rainbow / Global Rainbow by Yvette Mattern, a laser light sculpture on view over New Haven this past April.

In an interview at the non-profit organization’s office in New Haven, Clarke tells me that when the group was coalescing back in 2003, the founding members felt that its objective should be to commission “public art in public spaces. And it needed to be able to be interpreted, appreciated, enjoyed and understood on many different levels.” The goal was to bring something that “could engage people from the most disadvantaged communities” as well as those from higher income and educational brackets.

Site Projects’ inaugural commission was Chasing Rainbows, a 2004 high-tech digital light installation on the New Haven Green designed by artist Leo Villareal. The 20 long glass tubes contained thousands of lightemitting diodes (LEDs) programmed to evolve in color based on principles inspired by mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life. The sculpture seemed to pulse and shimmer, a cyber-organism with a mysterious inner life.

The road to Chasing Rainbows began shortly after Clarke, who trained and practiced as an architect, left her job of eight years as director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. In search of a new challenge, Clarke first contemplated commissioning “an old-fashioned European sound and light show” about New Haven history for the New Haven Green. As Clarke recruited other prominent members of the New Haven arts community for their input — Clarke’s fellow co-founder Betsey Dunham, Debbie Hesse, Susan Smith, Helen Kauder, Joy Wulke, and Paul Ha (then a curator at the Yale University Art Gallery), among others — the sound and light show idea was set aside in favor of “a piece of the new high-tech art.” The success of Chasing Rainbows solidified Site Projects as an organization and generated enthusiasm for commissioning future work.

Clarke wishes to make clear that the Site Projects Board of Directors chooses the work. (Clarke was responsible for calling the board’s attention to three artists who subsequently received commissions, Jason Hackenwerth in 2006, Felice Varini in 2010, and Yvette Mattern in 2013.) Still, her background as an architect with a fascination for the dynamics of public spaces surely informs the organization’s orientation.

Clarke was on an academic path in graduate school at the University of Texas, pursuing a master’s degree in American studies. With all her required work done, she opted for a course in the architecture school on architecture related to public places — public spaces having been a focus of her American studies research — and was “hooked.” Drawing and beginning design courses followed.

“It was the most fun thing I’d ever done in school,” Clarke recalls.

When her husband, architect Fred Clarke, took a job in Los Angeles, Clarke earned her own master’s in architecture from UCLA.

“I loved design assignments when they were at the point of seeing big ideas,” says Clarke.

In 1977, after she and her husband moved to Connecticut, Clarke was offered a teaching position at the University of Texas. Clarke says she became more interested in architecture as applied to existing building — rehabilitation and historic preservation. Clarke won a state preservation award and several local awards for her efforts overseeing the rehabbing of the Makemson Steel Building in the town in which she grew up.

She also got her first taste of creating a public event in a public space. A nighttime Christmas parade she initiated in her hometown of Georgetown, Texas, in 1979 is still an annual event.

“The idea was to bring people together into spaces where there is no commercial benefit to be gained to anyone,” explains Clarke. “Coming together to be delighted, for fun, stimulated, to see something they’ve never seen before.”

With Night Rainbow / Global Rainbow, Yvette Mattern’s laser light sculpture, Site Projects worked closely with the New Haven Board of Education to take advantage of the teaching opportunities presented by the project. The organization went through its own learning process to get to that point. Villareal’s Chasing Rainbows was assembled off-site and installed on the New Haven Green without the artist’s ongoing presence in the city. But with the second work of art — Hackenwerth’s monumental balloon sculpture of a fanciful sea anemone, The Megamite — the artist ensconced himself in a corner of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, blowing up balloons and tying them together. Museum visitors sat on the floor to watch, chatting with the gregarious Hackenwerth about what he was doing and why. Clarke says the organization realized “we need to choose an artwork where the artist comes and installs it.” Particularly for young people, witnessing the process is as valuable as contemplating the finished work.

While most of the organization’s commissions have been temporary, Felice Varini’s illusionistic Square with four circles is on view indefinitely, visible in the pedestrian alley from Chapel Street to Temple Plaza and on the exterior of the Crown Street Garage. Clarke notes that “we’ve had two wedding portraits shared with us taken in the Varini artwork,” a sign that the public feels an ownership and pride in the attraction.

“At the most fundamental level, I feel like a city is wonderful when it’s generous to its citizens, when it feels like it’s giving something to the people who live there,” says Clarke. “When people come down to a concert on the Green, that is something the city gives out. Public art is part of that.”

Article by Hank Hoffman 

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