Pepón Osorio is the antithesis of the isolated artist laboring alone in his studio to realize a masterpiece. For Osorio, a MacArthur Fellow and professor at Temple’s Tyler School of Art, creation is an act of social work, a communal affair. His latest installation, Drowned in a Glass of Water, soon to be on view at the Williams College Museum of Art, was a collaboration with students, faculty, staff and townspeople.
Osorio’s artistic practice is influenced by his early experiences in social work in New York City. During the 2009-10 academic year, Osorio journeyed monthly to Berkshire County, where he shared conversations, stories and meals with local residents. He sought to identify two families (one from Williamstown, the other from North Adams) as his collaborators and to transform their personal histories into a collective narrative. In a further attempt to engage the community, the artwork that resulted made its debut this summer in a vacant automobile dealership in North Adams.
“I’m really interested in discovering how art can nourish us,” Osorio explains. “I spent weeks visiting with the families and learning their stories. I was looking for differences between the communities, but I ultimately found commonalities. I’m focusing on moments in both families’ lives when time froze, and how the events in our lives mark our paths.”
The piece is monumental—18 feet in diameter—and mounted on a revolving platform. As Osorio explains, “The piece rotates; this comes out of conversations I had with Williams students and staff about shifting lives and changing fortunes.”
As the installation slowly turns, Osorio’s renditions of the stories of the anonymous families’ lives are revealed and juxtaposed. The viewer is presented with one home’s interior, the other’s exterior. A deconstructed wheelchair on the busy interior side finds a parallel in the ambulance gurney on the spare lawn opposite. Signs of medical trouble and images of rising and falling water relate to the title of the piece, an expression that refers to moments when challenges seem larger than life, making us feel, says Osorio, “as though we could even ‘drown in a glass of water.’”
According to Lisa Corrin, director of the museum, which commissioned the piece, Osorio was chosen because of the community-based methods he employs to generate his art. “Pepón’s collaborative practice involves his subjects at every level, encouraging them to participate in a dialogue that begins at their first encounter and continues when the work of art goes on view. His great challenge was that he knew nothing about our communities—he was in every way an outsider. He needed to immerse himself in the idiosyncrasies of our place. He did this with the invaluable help of the curator and interns, our students, faculty, staff, social services agencies and the generosity of our community members.”
“What excites me is the notion that we are extending the museum to other places. Presenting the work in the context of an unexpected site encourages the students who are helping me to understand the process of making art outside the academic context. They will engage with the larger world when they leave Williams, and helping me with this project is a small mirror of how their art education will apply outside the confines of their Williams education.”
— Pepón Osorio
The exhibition was curated by Cynthia Way, director of education and visitor experience at the museum. Way remarks, “The most important part of this project has been the process. Each visit, Pepón disrupted our routine and brought an artist’s eye and imagination to our everyday lives. He drew us all into the process of creating the artwork, and his generosity of spirit invited honest, meaningful conversations, which in turn informed the visual vocabulary of this very complex installation.” Once the empty showroom at Gateway Chevrolet was chosen as the first venue, Way explained, “Pepón made the space into his studio, and we were his willing apprentices.”
“Pepón reminds me of yoga. He cultivates in those surrounding him a state of relaxed and heightened awareness.”
—Joann Harnden, Museum Coordinator of Education Programs
Drowned in a Glass of Water…
An Installation by Pepón Osorio, will be on view at the Williams College Museum of Art from Sept. 25, 2010 through Feb. 6, 2011.
The installation was commissioned by the museum in connection with the symposium “The Place of Taste: An Exploration of Food, Culture, and Community,” which will be held at the College on Oct. 2, 2010. Pepón Osorio will be featured in “Artists’ Dialogue: On Cultural Perceptions of Taste.” The symposium is a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, edited by Williams Russian professor Darra Goldstein. For more information, see www.wcma.org.
Other collaborators in the making of Drowned in a Glass of Water included DownStreet Art, a public art project designed to revitalize downtown North Adams, and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, which aims to improve the quality of life for people in the area by organizing, supporting and empowering the community.
The artwork is composed of everyday objects that one might find in basement storage or in a neighborhood tag sale, but Osorio makes the mundane precious through his intervention. Osorio sent staff and students on challenging object-finding expeditions. Once it was a search for broken clocks. Then Osorio initiated a mission to obtain 68 rubberized no-slip tub mats composed of shapes he thought looked like tears. The interior scene features salvaged curios, the exterior scene a giant fiberglass tree and fake dandelions that punctuate the manicured lawn. A life-sized mannequin wears an elaborate dress with pink crocheted ruffles, woven by 23 volunteers from the Berkshires and the artist’s hometown of Philadelphia, symbolizing community support.
“Pepón is here at every step of the process. It’s fascinating to have his constant feedback. We are not just left with a static set of instructions with no possibility for change and evolution.”
—Rebecca Kane ’10, intern, Lee, N.H.
Maia Robbins-Zust, technical director of the theater department, engineered the mechanized turntable; she also reupholstered a wooden settee with a fuzzy blanket printed with an elk design. The upholstery correlates with other found objects meant to evoke the natural setting of the Berkshires, including images of the Cascades in North Adams and several faux deer heads mounted on the wall. Simulated running water, a recurring motif, links the two sides of the installation. Interns assisted in the creation of videos and painted elements to Osorio’s specifications.
“My process of working with the students and staff so intricately has been like weaving. I am weaving together stories of the community,” Osorio says. “I am interested in the democratization of the artistic process. It’s not just about what I achieve from making the art, but about what the participants can discover about themselves through their involvement.”
The making of Drowned in a Glass of Water was a communal act, one that both examined the complexity of its setting and engaged a range of people in the creative process. Yet even as Pepón Osorio created a piece of art for the public, as he himself explains, “The truth of the piece is personal.” In the privacy of individual imaginations, viewers may interpret the work’s meaning for themselves.
“During Winter Study, I saw Pepón’s interactions with community members, and I have seen his thinking and vision develop based on our reflections as students and his own changing perceptions.
Working with him has changed my artistic process—influencing my senior project that focused on capturing people’s defining moments in video.”
—Shelley Williamson ’10, intern, Pittsfield, Mass.