Wade in the Water

Welles Emerson maps the surface of a wave--and the art of science

Welles Emerson is tough and crafty when it comes to her art and makes no bones about being so. Consider the scene one Wednesday afternoon at the Minnesota Artists Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as Emerson scrambles to finish preparing four large installation pieces for her show Portrait: 3 Meters per Second, which opens in a week's time. At the moment, Emerson's husband Geo Edwards, one of two assistants helping to bring the complicated central piece into being, is laying down flat tiles of cork atop a plywood platform in the middle of the gallery. He kneels down in a translucent forest of clear acrylic rods set up in a pattern based on a complicated system (which we'll get to in a moment). The only sign he is there is the pungent odor of industrial adhesive that wafts through the air of the gallery.

Suddenly, without warning, a small group of MIA staff members, including senior curator of Asian art Robert Jacobsen (a major figure in-house), surprises Emerson with a visit. Instead of shying away from such dignitaries, she takes on the kind of confidently jocular anxiety of a construction-site foreman who knows the project is under budget and has been injury-free for 176 days, but still can't help being nervous about things. Emerson pays particular attention to Jacobsen, whose elegant taupe suit and silky black shirt contrasts with Emerson's jeans and T-shirt, and whose height and serious demeanor contrasts with Emerson's bantam qualities. They begin talking about a work titled Thread (2002), a silver-colored and wavy tubular-glass fence (about 17 feet in length and 4 feet high) set amid a spread of anthracite coal nuggets.

"It doesn't look like coal," Jacobsen says enthusiastically, leaning over the pile on the floor.

Breaking the waves: Welles Emerson
Richard Fleischman
Breaking the waves: Welles Emerson

Without skipping a beat, Emerson shoots back: "That's because I washed it four-hundred-fucking-million times in my driveway."

Jacobsen seems unfazed by her response, in fact seems wholly engaged by the artist, and they continue shooting the breeze for a time. They discuss how Emerson "wrangled" the coal from the city's River Trading Services, which keeps huge piles of the stuff down on the river at North Washington Avenue. Later she will describe how she had to win over the rough and skeptical coal men--perhaps in much the same way she wins over curators--to get what she needed. (She had to promise to return the coal.) With Jacobsen, she muses on how amazing it is that the City of Minneapolis still uses coal in this day and age considering how much pollution it produces. Then she remembers that she's in the middle of an interview with a journalist and dismisses Jacobsen with a smile.

That Emerson affects a strong and disarming persona (one observer said she never met a woman who swore more than your average truck driver until she met Emerson) is intriguing. In many ways the artist's approach to working is akin to managing a complicated research or engineering project; not only is her work in the show that complex, but the artist marshals the help of a vast array of experts and assistants. That Emerson is tautly self-deprecating and sharp-tongued disguises a high level of commitment to her craft that begins with fields of endeavor not often associated with contemporary art--namely, pure science, structural engineering, mathematics, and the like.

This is good stuff to dig into as a critic. After all, prior to the 19th Century, Emerson's approach to art was generally thought more normal than today's more right-brain artistic ideal. That is, artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo were men of reason who pursued science, engineering, and architecture along with their art. For whatever reason, the modern belief now says that the artist draws primarily from the expressive and intuitive parts of the brain, while it is the scientist who relies on the rational. Emerson is one artist whose natural curiosity and analytical mind, balanced with a good dose of initial intuition, belies conventional wisdom about what it takes to make art. In this way, she seems to overcome the prejudices of coal men and curators, scientists and engineers.

"[When I have an idea,] I find a lot of people automatically say, 'That can't be done,'" Emerson explains. "But then there are always a couple of people who will say, 'That's interesting,' and are excited to help. Those are the people I get connected with....You can't be an expert on everything. You can't be a steel engineer, and an architect, and a biologist. So I learn what I can about it, then find somebody who knows and who is curious and open-minded, willing to think outside their normal parameters."

Which brings us back to how the artist created Portrait. In this case, Emerson started with a simple-enough question--that is, Would it be possible to get a life-size topographic map of the surface of a body of water (which is constantly changing) and in doing so create a portrait of a Lake Superior wave? From the initial idea, Emerson began her research. "I have to build my scientific vocabulary all the time," Emerson says. "As I go on, I often talk to people who are more and more specialized, and there is limited patience. So I have to know what I'm talking about." In this case, Emerson first queried the department of hydrogeology at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, and from there she was sent on an almost yearlong scramble in search of answers to her question. In time, she spoke to the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), MIT, the University of Michigan, the U.S. Geologic Survey, and finally to Dave Wasson, a scientist at a think tank called Arete Research.

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