"We're Still on The Raft"

Art alumni Rico Gatson ’89 and Chris Larson ’90 work together again to create video installation.

By Claire Swenson ’19

July 30, 2019 | 8:10 a.m.

Rico Gatson and Chris Larson

Rico Gatson ’89 and Chris Larson ’90 discussed their piece with mediator Nate Young at the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) conference on June 15.

Rico Gatson ’89 put a vinyl of “Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino onto his record player. He looked up and met the eyes of Chris Larson ’90. “Just like the Mississippi River, we started floating,” Larson recalls. They had arrived.

For 33 years, Larson and Gatson’s lives have been intertwined. Both transfer students at Bethel, they met in 1986. Gatson recalls seeing Larson for the first time in what was then Market Square, with long hair and a skateboard, and later meeting in sculpture class with former professor Stewart Luckman ’61. After Bethel, they attended the Yale University School of Art together, earning their Master’s in Fine Arts degrees. Even their weddings were only one week apart. After school, they went their separate ways, but never lost touch. Larson came back to the Twin Cities, where he is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and Gatson moved to New York, where he lives and works. Both men have since become internationally recognized artists. Gatson has shown work all over the country, including in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Larson recently received a $55,000 Guggenheim fellowship.

On June 15, Gatson and Larson came back to where their friendship began to discuss a collaborative work at “In Situ: Studio + Society” during the Christians in Visual Arts (CIVA) annual conference hosted at Bethel. Their installation piece, “The Raft,” debuted in 2015 at the Pierogi gallery in Brooklyn. The piece is comprised of four projections on the walls of a room: one overhead camera of Larson and Gatson on a wooden “raft,” two intimate cameras placed on and occasionally moved around the raft, and a final shot of the constantly flowing Mississippi River. The full piece runs for three hours. Though not everyone is expected to watch the whole video, Bethel art professor Wayne Roosa actually watched the entirety of the piece in one sitting.

The Raft is comprised of four video projections on the walls of a room: an overhead, two on the raft, and one of the Mississippi River.

The Raft

“This project arose out of this ongoing dialogue that we had over the years,” Gatson says. Once deciding to do a collaborative project, the two wanted to find a common theme from each of their respective practices. “One of the threads that has run through our conversations over the last 33 years—that started out at Bethel—was music,” Larson remarked. “We started talking about The Raft and how we would bring music and how we would be together on the raft through music.”

Larson and Gatson explored their collaboration as well as their own experiences of music and voice. “I think there were records that came up that were important to me and to Rico. I think we both had a light-up moment in our musical journey and I think Rico identified maybe Public Enemy’s ‘Takes a Nation’ as one of the records that really lit him up, and mine was The Clash, it was punk rock,” Larson says. As they sifted through music to feature with the video installation, they found records that were important in their personal journeys, but also had voices of deep conviction.

Though the two were building on 33 years of relationship, as with any collaboration, there were difficulties. “It wasn’t easy and smooth,” Larson says. “There were moments of heavy, hard frustration and anger, and it wasn’t all peace and love.”

Gatson agreed, saying, “There were several things we worked through in the process of trying to produce this thing that exists as our ‘baby,’ that we both love very much.” Yet, they never let conflict hinder progress. “Peace and love was in there, it eventually came, but it was difficult,” says Larson.

The literal raft ended up as two sheets of plywood on wheels, pulled across Larson’s 80-foot riverside studio for 8-10 hours with a cable. “Finally, we got down to this really minimal situation where there were two record players, a pile of records that we chose, and four lights looking up at the camera that followed us, tracked us across the studio,” Larson says.

Still, it was more than the physical set-up. Gatson talks about the implications of their limited space together, saying, “We saw it as a space where we could sort of attempt to speak to these pretty layered issues, because music, as it plays in the background, can be a very powerful form of expression.” For these two, the piece represented a continuation of their ongoing dialogue about life, politics, religion, art, and everything in between. With comparisons to the raft in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the space became one of honesty and companionship. “The moment we left my studio and landed on the raft, that was the moment where the space did become charged. It was a risk, but it was also with a friend,” Larson says.

In a nonliteral sense, we're still on the raft.

— Rico Gatson ’89

“For me, the piece, because of the relationship, just keeps getting richer and richer with time,” Gatson says nearly five years after the beginning of The Raft. “It’s sort of surreal, leaving from here, the place where it all started, and coming back here, sitting on stage, talking with somebody who is really important to me and my formation as an artist, talking about this project that we did. That’s pretty powerful.”

The piece was shown until December 2016. Sheila Dickinson of The Brooklyn Rail says, “The depth that thirty years can bring to friendship is woven into the work, and we watch that depth unfurl through the embrace of music, formative music, in the sense of music discovered in their formative years and music that still connects them.”

One curator saw it and remarked, “It’s rare to see a piece that’s about friendship, and it’s hard to make work about friendship that felt like this one.”

“It’s really truly a piece about friendship,” Larson says.

Gatson echoes, “Really truly.”

Study Art & Design at Bethel

The Department of Art and Design gives students the opportunity to study studio art, graphic design, and visual arts education. Students in these programs take classes in painting, drawing, sculpture, art theory, graphic design, art history, and more. Bethel hosts two on-campus galleries, in which students have the opportunity to curate and show their own work.


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