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Art Installation Brings a Community Together

Bethel students and community residents view two projected videos while standing inside a translucent, inflatable sculpture at Jackson Meadow. (Photo Credit: Ken Steinbach)

Residents stand, transfixed, inside a translucent inflated structure—one that clearly imitates the architecture of their own homes. From this vantage point, they can see every house in their community. Soft light illuminates the interior, the result of short videos projected from outside onto two of the structure’s four walls. At first, the images in the video loop are unclear—their only distinctive and shared element is fire. The people stand in this inflatable house that is like theirs, looking at the houses that are theirs, and meditate on the fire. They talk late into the night.

This experience, which took place in May, was the result of a semester’s worth of work by students in Professor of Art Ken Steinbach’s Sculpture I class. Their assignment was to create an installment piece—any installment piece—in Jackson Meadow, a community located east of Bethel University in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. “It’s actually kind of an architectural gem,” Steinbach says of the location. “It’s won gobs of awards because it’s very distinctive.” The group of 40–50 houses that comprise Jackson Meadow were all designed under architectural guidelines inspired by early colonial and Scandinavian buildings.

The installation opportunity presented itself when Steinbach spent time with a friend—Kevin Nyenhuis—who lives in Jackson Meadow. “It’s a nice community where they actually do things together and have events,” Steinbach says. “So [Nyenhuis asked] me to create some kind of [art] event—a reason to get people together.”  

At first, Steinbach brushed off the idea. Free outdoor art shows weren’t his typical shtick, and even in service to a friend, it would be a stretch to fit such a project into his busy schedule. But that spring, just two students—Reid Harer ’17 and Savannah Bortner ’18—enrolled in Steinbach’s Sculpture I class, and he saw a unique opportunity. He pitched the idea of a semester-long installation project and they responded with enthusiasm, immediately diving into collaborative conversations with each other and Steinbach’s connections in Jackson Meadow.

The possibilities were endless. Many of the artists’ initial ideas were discarded because they had already been done, and the students wanted to experiment with an original concept. They wanted the installation to be brief—a passing opportunity rather than a permanent or long-term installation. Eventually, they turned their attention to relational aesthetics and decided they wanted their work to not only entertain, but also interact with the Jackson Meadow community. The concept of an inflatable structure resonated with both students and the process was propelled into the creation stages.

Harer and Bortner have vastly different strengths and career goals so, to make the project as practical as possible, Steinbach ensured both got to flex their unique skill sets. A sculptor and builder, Harer dove into the inflatable’s structural conception and construction. “It was a lot of experimenting and long nights in the studio,” he says. He was determined to create a scaled model of a Jackson Meadow house, and went through four iterations before landing on one that both inflated properly and appeared as he wanted it to. Despite the challenge of meeting his ambitious goal, Harer says the most unexpected part of the project was the materials he had to use. “I was taping plastic together,” he laughs. “It was completely new.” The whole structure was inflated using one box fan.

Bortner, on the other hand, is a filmmaker. She and Steinbach determined that creating a video to be projected onto the inflatable structure would add something to the experience of the art piece. At first, she had aspirations of evoking a political message, but when Nyenhuis told the group that Jackson Meadow was having a natural prairie burning, she jumped at the opportunity to film. “What better way to engage the community than an art piece that contains actual footage of the prairie burning, and an actual floor plan of the building from Jackson Meadow?” she says.

Like Harer, Bortner went through multiple iterations before landing on a concept that felt appropriate—about a 20-second shot of the prairie burn, paired with the same footage in reverse, which created a natural horizon line. And collaboration by Bethel alum Skye Gilkerson ’04 —a successful New York-based artist—added a finishing touch. Gilkerson has been working on a set of artworks that involves burning the New York Times and turning the ashes into ink to draw with. When the artists asked Gilkerson to create a video in response to Bortner’s work, it was a shot of the newspapers burning in a steel trash can. “Both videos were poetic, interpretive, elegant, and beautiful,” Steinbach says. “And they created this very soft glow up there on a hill in the prairie. It was amazing.”

The artists weren’t the only ones pleased with their end product. The exhibition—titled Trace/Limit—was embraced by the roughly 70 Jackson Meadow community members in attendance. “People loved it,” Steinbach says. “It became this light post or meeting place for all the people to come together.” He viewed the free exhibition as a subtle yet genuine way to minister to an outside community. “This allowed them to come together to have an experience in a way that was really community-building and celebratory—not artificial,” he explains. “We didn’t say, ‘We’re doing this because Jesus loves you,’ even though that’s true.”

The exhibit ran for about four hours and received news coverage from the creative community magazine CREEM. More important, Harer and Bortner got to participate in a successful, real-world art installation. “Something like this is what I hope to do [for my career],” Harer says. “Because I’ve had this experience…if I have another opportunity to do an installation in the future, I’ll have a good idea of how to [effectively achieve] that.”  

Learn more about hands-on learning opportunities with the Department of Art and Design.

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