MOCA’s Project Atrium: Caroline Lathan-Stiefel “Wider Than the Sky”

From pipe cleaners to reused and recognized old fabrics, Pennsylvania artist Caroline Lathan-Stiefel is preparing a monumental textile sculpture that will be suspended from skylight girders and cascade down to the floor 40-feet below in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) Haskell Atrium Gallery.
Influenced early on by textural components used in everyday life, such as pipe cleaners and swatches of frayed fabric woven and sewed, Lathan-Stiefel’s work has caressed walls, gently fallen over roofs of brick buildings, even been suspended from ceilings. The patterning and translucency of textural elements spark her creativity and are paralleled with the language of the brain – how it processes and connects – and how all of these ‘things” woven together became an integral part of the explosion of her creativity.

A life-altering episode occurred when her father contracted encephalitis. Going through the healing process with him shaped and altered her creative path forcing her to delve into the language of the brain as he healed after losing the ability to understand language and through the process of re-learning speech. She was reminded of the fragility of life as she and her family came together to help him rediscover how to listen and understand, as well as speak once again. Her father, a semi-retired physician, was no longer was able to retrieve words and communicate or do the things he loved, especially like writing and reading. His journey down the mysterious path of the healing brain was raw inside of her and this event became a catalyst for her to discover how reconnection to the world after losing the perception of life is in by itself a healing art.

OceanOriginally from Atlanta, she knew she was going to be an artist by middle school. Her father, a dedicated internal medicine physician, and her mother, who received a MA in art history and was a docent at the High Museum, encouraged her to explore the world around her and use art as a medium of personal expression.

After attending Brown University (Providence, RI) where she studied painting, Lathan-Stiefel was always drawn to vintage stores in the area and while there, explored making collage paintings with lace.

After graduation, she moved back to Atlanta where there was affordable studio space. She worked three part-time jobs and began to teach art, finding this very rewarding. She moved to designing and completing larger scaled sculpture with panels in paper mache and other textural material and was making figurative work. She re-met a high school friend, who became her husband, and they moved to New Jersey so he could go to Princeton and work on his PhD in musical composition.

She attended a low residency program at the Maine College of Art. This was a good fit for her as they did not require a student to “declare” painting or sculpture. “I saw my work was going to change,” says Lathan-Stiefel. She was assigned two main advisors during the two-year program. One advisor, Mira Schor, a feminist, thinker and great New York artist, was tough, but honest with her. “I was holding on to figurative work, and she helped me to move forward and begin experimenting with more textures and fabric-based sculpture work,” says Lathan-Stiefel.

Whorl#2Caroline started making abstract doodles in her notebook as required by her other advisor, Jeanne Silverthrone. Soon, another artist mentor and co-director of the MFA program, Katarinae Weslien, suggested she draw daily. These drawings resulted in what looked like microcosmic organic systems, some literally “running amok” – a mysterious parallel to what was to come as it related to her father. Silverthrone thought Lathan-Stiefel could make a 3D sculpture of this new “system-rhyzomic” work, and she encouraged her to do so.

The work of Spanish artist Antoni Gaudi spoke to her, as his organic architecture was large and created a visual impact on her, especially his inverse string and buckshot model of the Sagrada Familia. Caroline continued to change her artistic path and began to make suspended sculptures made with fabric and string. This created more viewer interest and brought each visitor closer as they walked weaving in and out of the sculptures. As Lathan-Stiefel continued to work with suspended structures, literally 3D versions of her drawings, they continued to be lightweight and were pulled by gravity onto the floor with fishing weights.

The artist continued to teach art, mainly in Trenton, New Jersey, as a teaching artist in the Guggenheim Museum’s “Learning Through Art” outreach program and also through the New Jersey Council of the Arts.

Pipe cleaners became a mainstay in her sculptures, which allowed her to dovetail yarn, fabric swatches and felt into her work by pinning the elements together. Over the years, she moved from pinning to sewing the elements into the sculpture, weaving in and out, out and in – a process of her work. “It was like drawing in space,” she says.

Over time, she began to add more and more fabric over pipe cleaners and created a translucency into which lines, shapes and light-to-dark colors and light mingle and meanders around and through. “The MOCA project is a very long piece,” she says. “Using black pipe cleaners, it’s like drawing in the air with black ink. I am creating a kind of ‘broken weave’ element – similar to what happened to my dad’s brain.”

Her gigantic versions of small drawings are translated by the using black pipe cleaners as the organic base from which all blossoms forth. She pins translucent organza with the aid of a few recently graduated textile students who come to her studio one day a week to help pin the fabric around and up and down into her sculptures prior to her sewing it all together. When she works she says the piece grows before her mentally and visually, as she connects the lines in space with the pipe cleaners a myriad of fabric, all to be packed up and brought to Jacksonville, then hung from the floor to the ceiling.

Arts/Industry Pottery KohlerUsing an array of reds, blues and black organza for the MOCA sculpture, she also inserts pieces of shopping bags and netting pieces of lingerie she receives through a collaborative effort with a woman who produces shapewear. Susan Ledyard and Caroline have now produced leggings with Caroline’s designs, now available through Cass Shapewear. Twenty percent of the revenue produced from the sale of the leggings nationally and internationally in upscale retail stores goes to fund education for economically disadvantaged students. The leggings will be made available at MOCA’s store. “I like all kinds of different fabrics, and the MOCA project is the largest I’ve done to date,” says Caroline. “However, I have just been commissioned to design an even larger piece for a new building in Malvern, PA, which is to be completed in the fall of 2015. I may incorporate more metal in my weavings this time as I expand my horizons.”

The artist chose “Wider Than the Sky” from an Emily Dickenson poem to be the name of her MOCA sculpture. “I felt this poem related to my Dad’s healing,” Lathan-Stiefel explains. “The brain connects thought, memory – everything, and this is what our family has been working through as dad continues to heal.” The MOCA sculpture will be attached to the back wall, as well. The 3D elements, such as sculptural elements from older pieces, have been incorporated in this work as “new” pieces, reminding her of the process of grafting a plant, making anew with the old.

Greenhouse Mix #7First, she will work to complete the nearly 40’ back wall, which to her looks like a dendrite branch located in the organic synapse of the brain. Then, she will continue to build on it like the branch of a tree emerging and it grows and matures. She is reminded of “thoughts” being woven in and out of the piece, as it organically explodes into space. She continues through visualizing this process to determine how she will complete the project. Then, the artist will tackle the text section, which will be the result of working on a digital embroidery machine at Next Fab, a collaborative studio in Philadelphia.

“This ‘word section’ in my sculpture will suggest some of what my father went through as he rediscovered how to talk and communicate,” she shares. “At first, he would say ‘rice’, which meant any ‘thing’. Then he would say ‘South Carolina’, which meant any ‘place’. My dad is a major sports fanatic. When he contracted encephalitis, his vocabulary was very small. The word ‘football’ could mean many things – it was kind of like playing charades, we had to guess what he was saying without the visual cues. Then, the brain began to heal itself – this is a very mysterious phenomenon.”

She was also inspired by Nobel Prize author Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who more than a century ago described the body’s nervous system through his drawings and publications. His work was related to neuroanatomy. This lead her to discover and understand the elements and colors of brain cells as she perused his drawings and saw the parallel between Cajal’s visual work and what she was trying to do as an artist. “It’s like a journey I go through, translating my microcosmic pen and ink drawings to macrocosmic fabric sculptures,” says the artist. “There’s always an element of improvisation, the many parts being linked into something new the openness evolving…like when the brain ‘fires’ our thoughts and processes language and speech, giving structure to us mentally and organically.”

The artist first connected with MOCA in North Carolina. She met MOCA’s director, Dr. Marcelle Polednik, while at a Frank Stella art show in Highlands, while visiting her parents, who have a home in Cashiers and in-laws who live in Highlands. After an initial discussion, Lathan-Stiefel researched more about MOCA and found Project Atrium to be a great space for her work. She wrote a proposal for consideration, and was accepted.

“The Atrium at MOCA is a rare ‘space’, which presents an enormous and exciting challenge for artists to work within,” she goes on to say. And, MOCA is pleased to present Lathan-Stiefel’s monumental work to Northeast Florida. “Since the creation of ‘Project Atrium’ in 2011, we’ve maintained a few core principles that are key to the success of the series,” states MOCA curator Ben Thompson. “Paramount among these is that the artist must engage with the scale of the space and utilize this challenge to explore new directions. Caroline Lathan-Stiefel has really embraced this challenge in her installation. It will be one of the largest and most intricate aerial pieces the museum has ever presented in the space. Additionally, it is unlike any project in the series to date in that the piece will truly utilize the volume of the Haskell Atrium Gallery. Lathan-Stiefel is taking full advantage of the three-dimensionality of the gallery by creating a multilayered piece and an immersive viewing experience. In order for viewers to fully explore the work, they will need to move around and through these layers. As a result, their interpretation of the work will change depending on where viewers are physically located in the gallery.”

In early July, the Lathan-Stiefel family moved from West Chester to Kennett Square, PA. Now, the artist’s drive to take their son, 12, and daughter, 8, to school where she teaches art two days a week, is shorter, giving her more time for her artistic endeavors. She’s excited about setting-up their new home in the countryside near a dairy farm. Plus, their new location gives her the opportunity to connect with a large city more easily, then go back home to the quiet solitude of the country. Her studio is relocated into the garage and into the study, giving her an extra room in the house, though she continues to draw and sew, as her kids say, ‘literally all over the house!”. Now, closer to Philly, she might even share a studio, giving her a change to explore the effects of having the city outside while she works diligently on her projects.
Her professional growth in the world of sculpture continues, and MOCA visitors will enjoy learning more about the interconnectivity of the brain in the world around us and in the everyday as they move around and walk into this monumental work. Don’t miss it.

About Joanelle Mulrain