Step back a few feet from artist Margaret Roleke’s sculpture along the brick walkway at UConn Avery Point and the flakes of color inside a white rectangular steel frame make the piece look like a stained-glass window, giving way to Long Island Sound on the other side.
Now step closer to the work that’s on display as part of Open Air 2022, and those colorful remnants that once evoked beauty take their actual shape – spent shotgun shells strung on vinyl cable in hues of blue, pink, red, yellow, and green.
“STAND UP” is just one of nine works in what’s become an annual outdoor exhibition for the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art at the campus and is the first official show for newly appointed gallery Director Jeanne Ciravolo ’19 MFA, who served as interim until late this spring when her hire became permanent.
“I was looking for a diverse approach to sculpture,” Ciravolo says of the show. “When I’m planning exhibitions, I am thinking about the public who is not conversant with art and of those who are educated artists. I want to make sure with each of my exhibitions that I include work that is accessible, to draw people in so they have a meaningful experience.”
The message of “STAND UP” is straightforward, prompting consideration of guns, gun control, and gun violence. The CoyWolf Collective’s “Silent Vanishing” – fixed to look like melting icebergs with two snowy owls in midflight – also has a literal statement, one of environmental doom.
During the exhibit’s July 14 opening, Ciravolo says one group of attendees commented on how they didn’t understand one of the other sculptures but related to and made sense of “Silent Vanishing.” That feedback was valuable.
Were that same group to return to the exhibition, they’d see a changed version of Thomas Pilnik’s “And Only Its Hands Are Left Pleading for Life.”
Sculpted on-site the day of the opening from 400 pounds of locally sourced clay, and with water from the Sound and sticks from the Cognitive Garden where it sits, Pilnik ’23 MFA wanted the work to break down in the elements, much the same as hands age during one’s lifetime. Today, the piece that once looked like two hands in prayer, has lost a pair of pinky fingers that collapsed to the ground during the first two weeks of the show.
“The artist told me it’s meant to crack and split; the rain will wash off the paint. It means to go back to its elements and into the Earth,” Ciravolo says. “At least one other work is starting to rust. It, too, is interacting with the air and the elements, and it’s changing.”
Helena Chastel’s “Chameleon,” a pair of hollowed out geometric orbs welded together, indeed is rusting, almost in cooperation with its surroundings.
The clime of the campus at the edge of the Sound where the Thames River spills, means at least a constant breeze and often the heavy feeling of humidity and sea spray in the air. Ciravolo says she advised artists of the potential for harsh weather – the show extends until Sept. 29, running during Connecticut’s storm season.
“One thing we talk about in the MFA graduate program is this idea of process, and how it’s very engaging to create work that you can’t control or that degrades with time. That’s an exciting way of making art,” Ciravolo says.
Catherine Nelson ’23 MFA plays with that principle in “The Edge of Things,” which was installed for the 2021 show and kept on for a second year in a pair of three-sided concrete structures near Avery Point Light. They show an accumulation of things that drift to the edges and accumulate.
This year’s Open Air exhibit is the third in what’s become a series that former Director Charlotte Gray started in 2020 during the pandemic, when indoor shows weren’t possible. Ciravolo, who also is an assistant professor in residence who’s been teaching studio art at Avery Point since 2019, says Gray asked her to put together open-air workshops to engage the public around the same time.
“I really want to continue Open Air and plan to make it one of the five shows the gallery puts on each year,” she says. “Our site is specifically created for an art experience because there’s an existing pathway and the exhibition unfolds as you move along the water’s edge. I think that is what many people are looking for in the way they consume art. There is a desire for immersive and interactive experiences. Our beautiful setting and our path are made for that kind of unfolding.”
And she’s eager to spread word of not just Open Air, but also next season’s exhibits in the gallery’s indoor space in the Branford House.
“When I first began curating here, people didn’t know we had exhibitions in the gallery,” she says. “I’d see people walking on the path from my office, and I’d run down and hand out flyers. I really want everyone to know about this wonderful space that is not just for UConn but also for the public. The gallery has an educational mission and a mission to create community.”
Open Air 2022 is open seven days a week and can be seen by walking along the path at UConn Avery Point’s southernmost edge from parking lot B to the lighthouse. Description cards at each installation include a QR code for more information about the artist and the work. It will close Sept. 29. From September to June, the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art is open indoors 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, but check the website for closures due to installations.