The latest Project Atrium artist explores the human brain’s malleability, taking inspiration from her father’s injury, in the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville


Wider Than the Sky is personal for Caroline Lathan-Stiefel. It’s a way of showing love for her father, who suffered a brain injury caused by encephalitis in October 2012, which left him with temporary damage to his speech.

“I feel like my whole family lives really close to my dad, and I am always the one that’s far away, so it’s helpful to make me feel like I am doing something that is a response to that distance,” Lathan-Stiefel says. Originally from Atlanta, where her father lives, Lathan-Stiefel now lives in rural Pennsylvania with her two children, her husband and a cat.

Her creations are born from a stimulated mind and a facile drawing. The spontaneous artist invents doodles of simple systems with her pen and begins a never-ending journey. Continuous and constantly evolving, her drawings transform into abstract and multidimensional systems. “I felt like I was making drawings in space,” she says. Lathan-Stiefel works on a massive scale and suspends her systems through visible fishing line.

Wider, her new Project Atrium exhibit, is a monumental textile installation richly layered with profound immersion about the complexities of the human mind, opens with a members-only preview on July 25 and is on display through Oct. 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.

Lathan-Stiefel aims to create a sense of wonder and surprise in viewers as they examine her rendition of the brain, suspended from skylight girders 40 feet overhead and held together by strings, fishing line, yarn and pipe cleaners. The flexibility of these low-art mediums will give her installation the independence it needs to adapt and take on different forms.

Lathan-Stiefel wants the viewer to be completely engrossed by this piece, and she hopes people feel something unlike anything they have ever felt. She wants to raise the question: Why would someone make something so big?

Her father was enjoying his two favorite things — watching sports and reading the newspaper — when suddenly he could no longer make sense of the words. After hearing about the incident, Lathan-Stiefel flew down to Atlanta to see him. She was amazed by her father’s injury and how his brain had begun to heal by re-growing itself organically. “I got to see his MRI results where it showed at first the damage on the brain, and then the damaged part got smaller over time, and I was just fascinated by that. It was almost like a drawing, always changing.”

Over a period of months, he went from not being able to say words to writing words, and actually improving. Her father, a doctor at the time of his brain injury, was forced to retire. Now on the way to recovery, he is writing medical journals with the help of an editor.

“Rice” and “South Carolina” were primarily the two words Lathan-Stiefel’s father spoke after the injury. He would say “rice” whenever he wanted an object, and “South Carolina,” where he was born, when he was referring to a place, she says. All the words he spoke were somehow associated with his childhood.

The idea of “thought” is integral to Lathan-Stiefel’s exhibit, and she says she would weave the word into the fabric of one section.

Lathan-Stiefel borrows the title from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Brain — is wider than the Sky,” and she says the title resonates with her own thoughts on the brain: “The fact that the brain is this small, tiny, sponge-like object that contains such enormity is very fascinating to me.”

In graduate school at Maine College of Art, a new world opened up for Lathan-Stiefel, one full of endless possibilities and ways of suspending objects. “I just had a sense of freedom because I was creating my own rules, and I could give myself permission to break my rules sometimes,” Lathan-Stiefel says. “While painting, I always felt like there was this person looking over my shoulder saying if that was acceptable or not.”

Later, Lathan-Stiefel began to hang her sculptures from the ceiling with string, an inspiration she took from architect Antoni Gaudí’s inverse hanging model of La Sagrada Família, a cathedral in Barcelona, which remains unfinished.

“I wanted the string to be visible, not like it was fishing line or anything, but part of the piece. And I was really interested in making something that was really big and monumental but also made out of lightweight craft materials like fabric, pipe cleaners and yarn,” says Lathan-Stiefels.

Installing art is like riding a roller coaster: It’s exciting at the beginning, but you also have moments of panic, she says. “When I make things, too, it’s also for my personal sense of wonder and surprise. I truly do not know what it will look like until I make it.”

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