Friday, May 29, 2009

Ralph Koltai: Theatre Designer and Sculptor

I was talking with my Dean, Joe Tiford, about my project, my blog and found objects yesterday. This prompted him to mentioned a name: Ralph Koltai. As his web site puts it, Koltai is "returning to his roots as a 3-dimensional artist, creating a series of bas-relief sculpture/collages. They are mostly made from found objects on farms near his studio in France. He selects panels or pieces, predominantly metal, and dissects them in a compositional form."

Koltai has designed some 250 productions of Opera, Dance, Drama and Musicals throughout the world. He studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London and became head of Theatre Design (1965 – 1972). And a my Dean is fond of saying, the world of theatrical design is a place where one's artistic vision can be made minifest ... and where one can earn a paycheck. In this day and age, that's no small feat.

Here's a link directly to hKoltai's sculpture: Start there, and then look at the set designs. Pretty impessive stuff. Thanks, Joe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Project Synopsis

Greetings! Follow along as UNCSA (that's the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC) faculty members Greg Shelnutt (Visual Arts) and Kelly Maxner (Drama) journey (and blog and vlog) into the sweltering heat of Alabama and Texas to visit the Rural Studio and Project Row Houses (PRH) in search of communities transformed.

Both the Rural Studio and PRH offer potent models of how the arts can be used to create, transform, celebrate and sustain human communities. Our interest in these two organizations is based upon our perception that the house form, especially when transformed into a “home,” is the primary site for the evolution of the human story: house / home is locus for the transitions of our lives. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, “…if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

So journey with us as we travel from Winston-Salem to rural Alabama and Houston, Texas over the course of only eight days. Our plan is to document the people, places and things we discover along the way.


“Project Row Houses (PRH) is a neighborhood-based nonprofit art and cultural organization in Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American communities. PRH began in 1993 as a result of discussions among African-American artists who wanted to establish a positive, creative presence in their own community. Artist and community activist Rick Lowe spearheaded the pursuit of this vision when he discovered the abandoned 1 1/2 block site of twenty-two shotgun-style houses in Houston’s Third Ward. The shotgun houses became the perfect opportunity to pursue the creation of a new form of art. They had two key elements: 1) a beautiful form recognized by the renowned Houston artist Dr. John Biggers to be filled with architectural, spiritual, and social significance, and 2) a need for social action among the community to bring the project to life.”

Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, stated, “Although it’s hard to tell at a glance, this stretch of Holman may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country — a project that is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from Chelsea and Art Basel and the whole money-besotted paper-thin art scene.”

The Rural Studio

In 1993, two Auburn University architecture professors, Dennis K. Ruth and the late Samuel Mockbee, established the Auburn University Rural Studio within the university’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio, conceived as a method to improve the living conditions in rural Alabama and to include hands-on experience in an architectural pedagogy, began designing and building homes that same fall. Professors Mockbee and Ruth sought funding to begin the studio and, through the years, it has received additional funding which has helped it become what it is today: a vision of a process to make housing and community projects in one of the poorest regions of the nation.

The students who attend the Rural Studio expand their design knowledge through actually building what they have designed. Utilizing the concept of “context-based learning,” the Rural Studio asks the students to leave the university environment and take up residency in Hale County, Alabama. In doing so, the student joins a poverty-stricken region and “shares the sweat” with a housing client who lives far below the poverty level. The goal of this exercise is to refine the student’s social conscience and to learn first-hand the necessary social, cultural and technological concepts of designing and building. This exercise requires the collaboration of the practicing architect.

Note: The image is of the book Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, ISBN-13: 978-1568982922).

Found Object Archive

I also plan to find and document a minimum of 30 found objects, recording the time, place and context of where I find them along the way. This isn't exactly a part of the original project, but a part of an assignment I made to my students over the summer. I also said I'd do it, too.

What I'm looking for is stuff as mundane as scrap lumber to rusty bottle caps, rocks, broken toys, scraps of fabric, etc. The main idea is that the things I find need to "speak" to me somehow. My general rule of thumb: if I'm out on a walk and my eye rests on an object for more then 3 seconds, I need to pick it up.

As the Australian artist, Rosalie Gascoigne said about scrap, “Reap in what is useful to you. Beware of the nice things that you find that say nothing: they are like new wood from a hardware shop. I look for things that have been somewhere, done something." If you've never seen her work, a good place to start is

Nancy Reddin Kienholz, speaking of her late husband and collaborator, sculptor Ed Kienholz, who died June 10, 1994. "”He loved bartering. We went to flea markets all over the world. We would just wander aimlessly around and look for something that had magic – and then bring it home and fool with it."

So that's my plan: find and document objects from our journeys as another way to interpret the trip. Then I bring it all home and "fool with it."

NOTE: New link to Artsy's Keinholz page:

Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts

We wish to express our sincere thanks to the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts for their generous support of this project. We also wish to recognize Thomas S. Kenan, III for his visionary leadership and support of the arts in North Carolina.

The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts incubates projects that sustain artists at every point in their creative development through strategic partnerships that capitalize on visionary thinking in the arts. As their mission states, "Where creative exploration happens with zeal and with purpose, without restraint or presumption, there will thrive a society that not only sustains its people, but challenges, connects and enlightens them through the power of bold human expression."

It's a lot to live up to, but we'll do our best. Finally, we'd also like to thank Margaret Mertz, Lynda Lotich, Suzanna Watkins, and Amanda Balwah, all of whom who work tirelessly to manifest that vision every day.