Wade in the Water

Breaking the waves: Welles Emerson
Richard Fleischman

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.

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.  

It was Wasson who finally provided Emerson the method she needed to generate her data and then create her portrait: something called synthetic aperture radar (or SAR) that is used by the Department of Defense. SAR is a sensitive "remote sensor system" that can map the height of a set of points along a particular surface--for example, a small body of water. Let's say the measurements cover four-inch increments of lake surface for some 16 feet by 20 feet--the floor dimension of Emerson's central installation. These measurements can then be transferred to data points (heights at certain spots in the wave), which can later be used to create a 3D model of that wave--using rods spaced at four-inch intervals and cut to match the various heights (up to six feet) of the points.

Though the device can generate points at very small increments--say, every one-tenth of an inch--Emerson chose her interval (four inches) to keep the number of rods at a sane level. Still, she had to measure and cut thousands of rods, and set them carefully into a grid of holes, each four inches apart, drilled into plywood platforms. In this way, Emerson had her portrait--a rough reproduction of a 16-by-20-foot section of Lake Superior. The rods, by design, don't describe every point of the wave. (If you placed a stiff fabric over the rods, you'd see the wave as it was at that moment.) The result of all the open spaces, however, is that the piece opens up to something more artistic and transitory than a mere representation. That is, there is strangely much more to look at here than just a wave shape. For instance, you can choose to view the rods from the side, a vantage point from which they look like a thousand frozen raindrops or small fields of clear stalks of wheat. Or you can enter the piece by walking onto the cork path, stand over the ersatz wave, and examine how the light from the overhead bulbs passes through the rods and refracts onto the platform below, like sun through the surface of the ocean reflected on an ocean floor.

Any way you choose to view the work, the feeling it gives is distinctly natural despite the unnatural materials, and it is distinctly artistic, too, despite being generated through science. Emerson's art is beautiful no matter what it represents, even if it's not always the easiest to comprehend.

Emerson acknowledges that her mixing of science and art is not for everyone. There are different kinds of people, she says, and there are artists whose work is not necessarily about rational inquiry, or the natural world. "Some people are processing a lot of emotion in their work," she says, citing German expressionism as an example. "My work is emotional to me in that it's about things I create out of curiosity. The things that capture my attention and hold it--like watching the way the world changes as the tides and winds change--are sort of overwhelming to me."

Emerson's open-eyed approach follows an eye-opening childhood. Her parents were children of the Sixties and followed a bohemian lifestyle. As a result, she lived on three continents and in four states during her youth. Having graduated in 1989 from the University of Minnesota's art history program, Emerson only fairly recently (five years ago) returned to making art. Though she works part-time as a scenic artist, she says she's phasing out that pursuit in favor of a newly acquired certificate in civil mediation from Hamline School of Law. The 37-year-old is also the mother of three children.

Her ideas for art begin as notes in a journal, perhaps a way to process thoughts in the midst of a busy life. As for where the ideas for this show originated, Emerson says, "There's something about the inside of certain natural environments that provokes in me a huge curiosity--a kind of focused attention. I sit on a hillside and watch the wind blow through the grass, and it's totally mesmerizing. For this work, I imagined a body of water and my head floating just above the waves, and I can see the changing environment around me."  


At the opening of "Portrait: 3 Meters per Second," the finished show reveals different parts of Emerson's multifaceted interest in nature. Across from the coal piece, another wavy fence--this one of clear glass--stands embedded in a field of Lake Superior stones. Called I'm Not the Boss of You, and Vice Versa (2002), this work seems intended to bring together the elements of the other two main installation works. The fence on this side of the gallery balances the fence on the other side, and the lake stones seem to comment on the wave that fills the center of the space.

The only piece that seems fairly incongruous in the installation--and this is a minor quibble--is the last one. Called Skin (2002), it is a conglomeration of more than 3,000 iridescent peacock feathers from India glued to a flat piece of paperboard. It hangs on the wall near the back entrance to the gallery, and it's beautiful, but it doesn't much relate to the other works in style or approach. Perhaps the feathers, reflecting the gallery lighting and ranging in color from aquamarine blue to kelpy yellow-green, connect to the colors of water while undulating with any breezes in the gallery. (In fact, most viewers can't overcome the temptation to blow on the piece.)

Now that the show is up, Emerson is relieved, and she drops much of the bravura she showed beforehand. She says, in a somewhat humble tone, that she is satisfied with how the work turned out. "I am always able to pick the parts that I wish I could have done better, but it's great knowing I put something together that has never been seen before. And I have the internal observance that I got it right. I'm not saying it's perfect, just that it's right."

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