Seeing Is Believing
Seeing Is Believing
After moving to Plainwell, Michigan, a town of about 4,000 residents on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, artist Norwood Viviano realized that nearly everyone he met had in some way been affected by the paper mill industry. The Plainwell Paper Mill, established in 1887, was the town’s beating heart until it declared bankruptcy and shuttered its plant two decades ago.
Viviano chose Plainwell in 2005 to be close to Grand Valley State University, where he teaches sculpture, and because it seemed like a tranquil and affordable place to raise a family. Being there, he says, made him think more deeply about the “ties between industry and community and the hierarchies at play,” leading him to create a series of metal sculptures called Recasting Michigan. The sculptures showed, in a tactile way, the population shifts that have taken place since the industrial revolution in manufacturing cities across the state. “That was my first foray into experimenting with data,” he says of the works, completed between 2009 and 2011. “Most people would walk right by raw statistics, but if you make it three-dimensional, it has an ability to draw you in.”
One of the sculptures, made of cast and machined aluminum, has an angular, geode-shaped base representing Detroit’s population growth and decline over time (it peaked in 1950), and a flat top showing a detailed three-dimensional portrait of the city as seen from the air. Carving it required a computerized mill and took 300 hours.
Viviano is part of a group of sculptors and craft artists who are using statistics and data in their creative processes. The themes they deal with are varied, yet they seem unified in their goal: to help people understand important social, political, and environmental changes that occur over long periods of time.
“Craft is really effective at providing accessible pathways to understanding the world around us,” says Beth C. McLaughlin, artistic director and chief curator at the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts, which recently unveiled an exhibit called Material Mapping: Data-driven Sculpture by Adrien Segal & Norwood Viviano, on view until March 2024. “Humans have been using their hands to convey information for thousands of years, and incorporating data is a way of expanding this tradition.”
McLaughlin says she is seeing more and more craft related to data, as well as significant interest from collectors. Although the trend is hard to quantify, there is anecdotal evidence supporting a growing link between facts and statistics and craft, including the publication this year of Making with Data: Physical Design and Craft in a Data-Driven World (CRC Press), which presents more than two dozen contemporary designers, researchers, and artists who are using data to produce objects, spaces, and experiences.
Illustrating Natural Phenomena
Adrien Segal, the other artist in the Fuller exhibit, has used a variety of materials, including bronze and plywood, to create sculptures that illustrate environmental processes and natural phenomena. In 2017 she won a CODA award for California Water Rights, a monumental site-specific installation based on water allocation data in California. The three-story piece, which occupies the atrium of a tech lab, is made of more than 1,000 color-coded ball chains draped at varying lengths from an undulating metal “river” that hangs from the ceiling. Each strand corresponds to the amount of water allocated to an entity, be it a corporation, government institution, or individual, and each ball represents one acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, providing a striking visual of the immense quantities of water used in the state.
Although the piece raises questions about sustainability and shows the perils of mismanaging a finite natural resource, Segal says she is more interested in presenting information in an experiential way than in feeding us an opinion.
“Some people think I’m an environmental artist, but that’s not a true reflection of who I am,” says the Oakland, California, resident. “I find inspiration in tapping into natural patterns and processes and connecting to these grander forces in the universe. I provide the richest possible information about how I got to those things, but leave the interpretation to others.”
Pressed further, she adds: “I don’t believe the purpose of art is to have an agenda.” In this sense, she’s somewhat of an outlier among the cohort of artists who use data.
“Beauty is a strategy to draw someone into a conversation before they know what the work is about,” he says. “It may make people more willing to engage with the content.”
Viviano started working with glass after completing a fellowship at the New Jersey–based Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, an internationally acclaimed program devoted to glass. Before that, he worked with ceramics, resin, and bronze. Having access to university labs and workshops allows artists to experiment with materiality and process, and thus bring data to life in awe-inspiring ways.
Segal, for example, has her own studio in Alameda but sometimes uses the facilities at the California College of the Arts, where she holds a teaching position. And one of her most important pieces, called Molalla River Meander, was completed during a residency at the Oregon College of Arts and Craft. This wooden sculpture depicts the subtle changes in alluvial flows that happened over 15 years in a section of the Molalla River in Oregon. It has 15 layers of plywood that were cut with a CNC router (a machine that uses computer programming to control a high-speed cutter), then carefully glued together and sanded, resulting in a cohesive flowing form. “I wanted people to connect to how a river moves in a more intuitive way,” explains the artist.
Many of us think of data as being austere and unapproachable, but artists like Viviano, Segal, and Weinberg make us realize that’s not necessarily true. Not as long as we have the benefit of their artistic vision.
“We are trying to tell stories with data,” says Viviano, “of challenges related to the past, present, and future—and we’re telling them from a point of view.”
norwoodviviano.com | @norwoodviviano
adriensegal.com | @adriensegal
taliweinberg.com | @tali.weinberg
fullercraft.org | @fullercraft