What once started as a way to inform students about the blockbuster show at the Hirshhorn Gallery this spring, quickly turned into one of the most exciting moments of my art teaching career.
By now, you all probably know of Yayoi Kusama. You know, short red bob? Polka dots adorning every inch of her wardrobe? If that doesn’t ring a bell, allow me to fill you in. Kusama is the 88 year old Japanese artist who fled Japan for New York City at a young age to avoid a life of domesticity, stopping at nothing, not even the hallucinations brought on by a lifetime of mental illness, to break through the male-dominated art scene in America.
Kusama’s 60+ year career as a professional artist has been dotted (pun intended) with various media and making approaches. From anti-war “happenings” to wall-sized, 2D Net paintings, funky 3D forms covering furniture, performance pieces involving horses and body paint, and onto her viewer-centric, all-consuming infinity mirror rooms.
Can we all agree that the 30 seconds she gives you to explore her forever is nowhere near enough? And that’s when you have a ticket to the show!
You see, contemporary art that requires the viewer’s participation becomes a ‘must see’ event almost immediately, especially work like Kusama’s, which lends itself brilliantly to the social media obsessed. Hashtag #infinitekusama has blown up all over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook because if you don’t have a selfie of yourself there, were you ever really there at all?
Due to the popularity of the show, obtaining a ticket for entry became a requirement in order for the museum to manage the sheer volume of people hoping to enter the doors. This high demand, limited supply ratio ups the desire to get inside but makes it nearly impossible for art lovers eager to sneak a peak. Even yours truly couldn’t get in without a generous favor from a Maury family and a supportive principal (who let me sneak out midday and call the outing professional development–which it very much was).
So how to solve this problem of FREE to all yet exclusive as ever?
I presented this same conundrum to the artists of StudioMaury.
“Let’s build an infinity room of our own!” they chirped. “Ours will be free and you wont need a ticket or have to stand in line! Everyone is welcome. Even Kusama!”
So thus began our 6 week study of #InfiniteKusama at Maury Elementary.
We began by studying her Infinity Nets as a way to access the almost therapeutic (or maddening) focus required to commit to a single repetition on such a large scale. For some, the process of repeating the polka dot was meditative. For others, infuriating. We worked in centers and rotated through 4 different processes. We discussed which method (Q-tip dots, pom-pom dots, finger tips, or recycled lid dots) most convincingly produced the feeling of infinity. Agreements about dots that connected to create large pockets of darkness often came up, as did small, star-like marks reminiscent of the universe and the foreverness of the cosmos.
We ventured into sculpture next. Kusama’s handmade Accumulations are a way to overcome many of her fears. By covering everyday objects such as furniture, she forces herself to spend time with forms that elicit fear in her. The kids were able to make connections to this idea pretty easily. We discussed how people who are afraid of dogs could benefit from spending time with a friendly dog in order to gain trust and understanding of the creature. Fear of the dark is helped with a nightlight as a way to ease into the darkness and become familiar with it.
Our accumulations were made from organic shapes stuffed with newspaper to create soft 3D forms. We hot glued them to the door of the studio to entice passersby but also give them pause. The door handle is hidden and requires an adventurous grasp into the sculpture to make contact with the knob. The forms are heavy, un-shy, and demand your attention and physical contact. They become an obstacle that requires contemplation upon every encounter. I think Kusama would be pleased.
As we dove deeper into our unit and gained a real fondness for our artist, not to mention an empathy for those with mental illness, a topic discussed not nearly enough in schools and with young children, our question evolved from how to make art accessible, into how to persevere when grand ideas fail.
At first, my plan was to collect a ton of used cardboard (think refrigerator and headboard boxes) and build a magnificent structure from those. Easy, right? So collect I did. And fail I did. Cardboard was not the way to bring the vision in my head to life (thanks, Subrat for spending an afternoon helping me realize that! Haha!).
This cardboard dome would have been pretty cool though…
Next it was on to tents! Luba, another generous Maury parent, and I talked tents a lot. We thought that pitching a 10′ x 10′ tent in the entrance to the studio would solve all our problems. The canvas sides of the tent would be perfect for decorating . Can anyone say fire hazard? The tent idea was doused in no time flat.
This was about the time I taught a lesson on perseverance and collaboration. There were some melodramatic fables tied in there preaching “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and a huge emphasis on getting by with a little help from your friends. Thanks, Joe Cocker.
So that’s what I did. I called in a friend. I called in a friend with major engineering and construction skills, power tools, and the patience and dedication to spend 2 weekends in the Maury art studio with me and his son building an infinity room for kids in grades his son wasn’t even in, just to see our vision come to life. The results are out of this world and in my opinion, far cooler than the infinity spaces at the Hirshhorn Gallery. No offense to the Princess of Polka Dots.
Dan does nothing “half way.” I tease him by saying that our Maury infinity room is built to code, but that is only sort of a joke. Members of the tiny house movement would be jealous of our structure because standing proud at 6′ x 5′ x 4′, a person could happily live inside the space and be sheltered from the elements and cozy as can be.
Once the wooden frame was built, it was time to add our artistic impact to the project. Over 100 student designs were submitted. I combined themes I saw repeating over and over throughout the submissions to arrive at a final design for the inside and outside walls of our infinity room.
Painter’s tape allowed us to color block the geometric shapes of our design. So not to completely steal Kusama’s dotted motif, we went with strong diagonal lines to create repetition of angled shapes. A combination of acrylic paint and latex house paint were used on top of the plywood walls. Life lessons about applying multiple coats of paint and creating brush strokes going in the same direction were abundant.
The inside walls are composed of black and blue argyle with yellow dots inside the black diamonds–a nod to Kusama’s black and yellow room entitled, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkin.
Eight classes contributed to this work of art, from kindergartners to 2nd graders. Any one of them could tell you how the room was constructed and how this work helps Kusama cope with a lifetime of metal illness. Having lived full-time in a mental hospital since her 20s, Kusama uses her creativity to combat her illness. She turns her demons into original ideas that excite the masses yet calm her soul.
Opening day of InfiniteMaury was such an exhilarating moment in my art teaching career. Here was a project that began as a cardboard pipe dream and resulted in a massive wooden masterpiece inside the walls of my enchanting elementary school art studio.
Kids and adults squeal every time they pass through the spinning light show projected onto student-made wall murals. The cavernous fortress is a shared space for quiet art-making with friends. It’s a conversation starter among family members and colleagues. It’s a living example of community at it’s finest.
The cherry on top, you ask? Perhaps it was having the brand new chancellor of DC Public Schools, Antwan Wilson, step foot into our student-centered work of art a day after completion and having a conversation with him about school being a place of rigor AND joy and saying confidently, out loud to him, that’s Maury Elementary. That’s art.
InfiniteMaury will be on display and open for self-led tours until the last day of school!
Come be a part of the magic, no ticket necessary!