Culture » Visual Arts

A breath of fresh air



Jason Hackenwerth asks me to remove my shoes and lends me a pair of socks to wear. I pull them on and slip between two heavy flaps to enter his tent.

It's small and dark inside. The only light comes from openings left untied between the walls and the ceiling. We pad on top of thin sheets of plastic taped to the floor, but can just go so far.

Only about 400 square feet in size, the tent is largely filled with segments of Hackenwerth's sculpture. Behemoth structures made of colorful, twisting balloons rest underneath swaths of the same thin plastic, taking up most of the floor space and nearly touching the ceiling in some places.

Hackenwerth gently bats them aside to show me how they'll link together (a process he likens to knitting), and ultimately form a 35-foot sculpture to be suspended from the rafters of Green Mountain Falls' Church in the Wildwood. Using about 4,000 balloons that range in color from a rich, golden orange to a light, acrid yellow, the piece will have a scoop on one end, and a hoop shape on the other, connected by a long shaft. Hackenwerth hopes it will complement the worship environment, and from the pulpit to the pews, bring to mind a circuit of prayer.

Amazingly, these huge forms have no skeleton or armature. "The sculpture is engineered in a way that it becomes its own form," the 41-year-old says. "So there's no structure or anything like that. It's just latex balloons."

Together, they look similar to sea creatures or microscopic animals, with feelers, hoods and flagella-like protuberances, though that's not Hackenwerth's goal.

"I think the reason people see that is because the process which I'm using is a type of hyperbolic geometry. That's a three-dollar word," he says with a self-deprecating gesture, adding, "Hyperbolic geometry is the same way that shellfish and sea creatures and most things in nature form their hard shells."

Like a lot of artists who specialize in installations, Hackenwerth is interested in how his work will fit in the space he's working with. He studied photographs of the church, and was inspired by the blue stained-glass windows. Based on that, and the shape of the nave, he began sketching. Once he arrived here, he started weaving together the balloons in his studio tent.

"It's incredibly simple, but it looks complex, which makes people scared," he says of the medium he learned from his mother, who worked as a part-time clown. "And very few people are copying it yet."

Boxes beget balloons

Hackenwerth has come to Green Mountain Falls as part of the Green Box Arts Festival. Now three years old, the two-week event is a gift to the town from Christian Keesee of Oklahoma City's Kirkpatrick Oil Company, whose family has been vacationing here since the early 1900s.

It all began in 2006, when Keesee started bringing the Larry Keigwin Dance Company here from New York City. Keigwin says the experience helped inspire his choreography and focus his dancers.

"You know, the dancer's life, at least the dancers in my company, they juggle many jobs just to survive ..." says Keigwin from New York City. "The life of the dancer is very quick-paced, and at times can feel very scattered, and piecemeal, whereas every summer we're out there for one or two weeks, and it's a very concentrated time where we get to focus on our craft.

"It's very tranquil and peaceful and, you know, it's almost a vacation and a creative residency rolled up in one."

A few years back, Keigwin composed the majority of his "Sidewalk" piece while in Green Mountain Falls. A site-specific dance created for the circular Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, it, like many of Keigwin's efforts, went on to earn glowing reviews. (His company will be rehearsing "Sidewalk" here this summer, for another performance at the Guggenheim in October.)

In time, the dance residency expanded and evolved to incorporate public audiences, with the additions of visiting artists and classes on topics like cooking and theater, as well as book signings with noted authors.

Curators help find artists for Green Box, but Keesee, who lives in New York City, often does the scouting himself. After seeing Hackenwerth featured in the New York Times in 2009 for a show in Michigan, he sought out the artist; unbeknownst to Keesee, Hackenwerth was already scheduled to exhibit at Keesee's City Arts Center in Oklahoma City.

(In another coincidence, Keesee owns the Brett Weston Archive in Oklahoma City, the institution that supplied photographs for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's recent show, Brett Weston in the East and West. The Kirkpatrick Family Fund is also sponsoring the FAC's new Joellyn Duesberry exhibit, described on p. 23.)

Locally, Hackenwerth will take his balloons to multiple locations. Aside from the church work, he'll create three wearable sculptures for Keigwin's dance company. His first wearables were conceived as a way to promote his art, but they soon grew into characters on their own, based on fairy tales; seeing them on dancers opens up another new realm of possibility.

"Because they're so talented, I imagine they'll invent some movements I wouldn't have thought of, or other people wouldn't naturally do," Hackenwerth says.

And Hackenwerth says he gets goosebumps as he explains a "womb"-like piece he's making for the library in Cascade. Hoping it'll fill the children's storytime space, he's using translucent balloons that shift from mandarin orange to citron yellow to clear. And unlike anything else he's created, the long, spiky nipple of the balloons will be on the inside of the structure. He sees it as a piece that will cultivate the kids' imaginations, even in its limited lifespan (which can extend to a few months, or deteriorate quickly in strong light).

Pitch (almost) perfect

For a medium that seems friendly, balloons, Hackenwerth explains, can be fairly temperamental. Heat and humidity can make them pop easier, or cloud their colors. Even in the dry Colorado air, there's enough humidity to make his efforts difficult. And the late June heat doesn't help, either.

Following our interview, an air conditioner is set up in Hackenwerth's tent. That takes care of one challenge, but Hackenwerth also has to worry about storing the balloon segments (the motel next door has room to house some) and then fitting them through a single door in the church.

So he's brought along his assistant, and has the help of six to eight volunteers every day, including Tara Thomas of the Bemis School of Art and local artist DeLane Bredvik. Though much of the time involved simply goes to blowing up balloons (using an automatic pump), Hackenwerth says working with artists is ideal, because they know how to work with strange materials.

And they can be flexible. Hackenwerth may have plans and designs for his works, but says he tries to approach his projects with the spontaneity of a painting.

"Because if it's perfect, then where do you go from perfect?" he asks. "Because if that's all it is, then what's the point? Once you know the answer, then why even bother with the problem?"

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