For her first non-ceramic, suspended sculpture, Alison Reintjes didn’t think small. But she had to start small to build “DoubleColumn,” her 25-foot-tall installation suspended in the Missoula Art Museum’s atrium.
The veteran ceramic artist had that three-story space in mind when she started work over a year ago. First she built a one-eighth-scale model of its geometric forms using children’s molecular chemistry kits. Then she built one with beading wire, miniature aluminum tubes and miniature rubber stops.
“I think we were all kind of a little stunned at how resolved it was,” said MAM curator Steve Glueckert. He said her vision was pretty clear – which is what they look for before committing to installations in the atrium.
After the MAM accepted her proposal, the consulting began.
She talked to an architect about assembling it and a structural engineer about its safety. After countless trips to Ace Hardware, the employees suggested she work with a rigging company about how to suspend it with steel cable.
Broadway Splicing and Supply answered her questions, and even let her use its tools and build “DoubleColumn” in its warehouse.
There, she assembled the sculpture from the top down using a hydraulic lift and the same materials as her model – aluminum tubes, wire and rubber stops.
She originally intended to construct “DoubleColumn” from extruded ceramic tubes, but soon realized it would be impractical because of the weight and fragility. As she put it, it was a “crazy, terrible idea,” and she went with aluminum, ordered in bulk and shipped from Spokane.
After finishing one level of its interlocking, spherical forms, swedging and crimping the cable herself, she’d raise the lift and continue her way to the bottom.
The final, 300-pound sculpture was installed in March. With a combination of luck and planning, “DoubleColumn” was able to “collapse” into a smaller state and was moved through the museum’s front doors on Pattee Street, right into the lobby.
Using rope, cable and pulleys, the MAM crew raised it three stories off the ground, stopping to cut the protective wrapping off each tube, and lifted it to its current suspended state in the well-lit space below the skylight.
Reintjes painted “DoubleColumn” with 10 airy colors that complement the sunlight that beams through the MAM’s upper windows. Her color options were somewhat limited by the available tints and shades of powdercoat, paint specially designed for metal surfaces.
“I ended up going with this gradation from white into yellows and then up into the darker ochre,” she said.
The palette was a nice contrast to the gray weather of March, when it was installed. “It’s a sunny piece,” she said.
Glueckert said the sculpture takes advantage of the full, three-story atrium.
“It’s very unified, and just her vision with the gradation of colors ... accentuates the different experiences as you go from the ground floor to the top, and you’re able to see it from all those points of view,” he said.
In his catalog essay, he writes of its contemplative nature – the end result that all that preparation went toward: “There is ... a quietude, which whispers to us of the human ability to slow down, to look, to appreciate and to share.”
Nearby, on a 20-foot wall in the entryway to the MAM, Reintjes has another sculptural installation, “Rounding.” It’s built out of 230-some 12-inch, straight ceramic pieces hung directly onto the wall.
It shares a limited number of forms and colors with “DoubleColumn” – equilateral triangles, squares and regular hexagons. The colors, too, are a variation on “DoubleColumn,” with whites, creams and amber-like yellow.
“Rounding” is part of her ongoing series of 15 to 20 ceramic works called “Crystallography.” They are obsessively geometric, an approach she enjoys.
“It’s clean. I feel like you can do something that’s very complex and very simple simultaneously. It has that duality or contrast,” she said.
Her forms draw on Japanese and Chinese art and culture, two wellsprings of ceramic history.
She prefers the heavily patterned art of Japanese ceramics, and also incorporates the repetition of Islamic art and architecture.
“There’s that rich cultural and artistic history to reference. But you can do it in a pretty modern way, because I think geometry is very modern,” she said.
She cites the influence of Sol LeWitt, the American minimalist and conceptual artist who also worked on full-room pieces.
“I think of it as a wall drawing, where you have very tight restrictions. You have these 12-inch-long straight elements that you can then building any sort of shape or pattern off of,” she said.
Her work is more about that visual aesthetic than any narrative concern, she said.
As Glueckert writes, “the only story that exists in the sculptures is about art itself, and the result is a tight and consistent body of work.”
“Rounding” is made from Reintjes’ preferred medium of slipcast ceramic. It’s an industrial mass-production process in which the artist pours liquid slip into a custom plaster mold. After it reaches the right thickness on the inside of the mold, the artist pours out the excess slip, leaving a “skin,” or hollow ceramic object.
“It allows you to repeat a form very consistently again and again,” she said.
Reintjes has earned two-year residencies at both the Clay Studio of Missoula and the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, but got into ceramics by chance.
A school she was attending didn’t have a studio for glass – her original medium – so she gave ceramics a shot.
The residency at the Archie Bray back in 2001-03, which brought her to Montana for the first time, sealed the deal.
“By the time the two years were up I wasn’t ever going back to glass,” she said.
She feels ceramics are more versatile.
“They can be very warm and very earthy, it can be pretty cool and clean. You can make it look like anything – not that I do – I keep mine pretty clean. Glass tends to be flashier,” she said.
The metal-based “DoubleColumn,” meanwhile, was a trial run in large-scale, suspended sculpture.
“My next challenge is to figure out how to do more projects of this scale and in what venue I would want to do them,” she said.
Missoula artist Alison Reintjes will give a gallery talk about her installation “DoubleColumn,” at 7 p.m. First Friday, May 2, at the Missoula Art Museum, 335 N. Pattee St. The reception will run from 5 to 9 p.m. The sculpture hangs through July.
Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.