TEDx, Thousands, Tiles and Thoughts.
May 6th, 2014
The past few months, I’ve been working on a big project. I painted my second 1000 paintings. Yet instead of four years, I took four months.
Because I’m crazy like that.
My studio has been stacked with hundreds of plexiglass squares since January. They looked like this.
I painted 110 red squares, 110 yellow squares and 110 blue squares, 200 mirrored squares and 520 clear squares. Jon Hart, the stage manager and awesome project coordinator for this, helped by cutting all those squares in to 5×5 inch pieces, then delivered them to my studio.
I used acrylic paint, which isn’t my usual favorite, but with 1000 paintings drying time is critical, so oils were out of the question. The fun part was watching the patterns emerge after I had painted a few hundred. I also used my typewriter!
I spent a lot of time thinking about how words were such a big part of the original 1000 paintings, and I wanted words to be a visual part of this project, too. Over the past few months, I’ve been typing out my morning pages. Then I cut them in to small squares and pasted them to some of the clear plexiglass in different patterns.
Once I’d finished painting the squares I returned them to Jon, who then drilled holes in the top and bottom of each square. That’s 2000 holes!
While he was doing that, I spent hours and hours working in Photoshop to figure out the right layout for the piece. We’d decided to hang the squares as strands, sort of like a beaded curtain. This part required math skills. Scary. 1000 squares= 80 strands of 25 squares each. I wanted a bit of depth to the hanging, so we created a front row and a back row and staggered the strands. Then we split the strands. The front row had 12 squares and the back row had 13.
My adventures in Photoshop looked like this.
The colored squares here represent the colored plexiglass, but the black squares represent mirrored squares. The media team and the lighting designer were concerned about light reflections, so I went with an arc of mirrors to avoid any crazy reflections at center stage. You can see the arc from this shot at the back of the room.
All that planning finally built to the assembly day. A few volunteers turned up throughout the day, as we prepped the squares and threaded the strands for hanging. The final step with each square was to create a frosted effect with spray paint on the back of each clear square. This helped diffuse the light and allowed my paintings to show up.
Then we pulled out my charts, and made stacks. Each stack was labeled. A=front side B=back. So A12 was the 12th strand in the front row.
From there, we threaded the squares on to thick black stage cord. It took us about 10 minutes per strand.
In the meantime, I was also prepping my talk and choosing the perfect outfit. I found the shoes months ago, because they matched what I was hoping the installation would look like. They were little embroidered squares attached by strings. (Honestly, I really worried that the installation wouldn’t look the way I imagined it in my head, so I really bought these shoes with fear and trembling.) And yes, my toes matched too. No one saw them that day but me, but I knew! And that helped a little.
Finally, we were ready to hang!
On Thursday morning, I got to the university early, and then I ended up waiting a while because the tech team wasn’t ready. Maybe I was a little eager?
We put the stacks in order below the truss, and I trained the volunteers in knot tying. Another secret worry: that a knot would come undone while someone was speaking. (Yikes!) Thankfully, all knots held fast.
The pieces began to come together and I started to get excited. There was movement! And sparkle! And color! Just as I hoped.
We got all the strands tied, and then began adjusting the squares to get things lined up properly. I’d get a few rows straight, then the tech guys would raise the truss a bit. Every time I felt a thrill. In fact, sometime during the day, I downloaded the Hallelujah Chorus to my phone. Each time they raised the truss a few feet, I’d play it. They were all just lucky I didn’t sing along. It was pretty amazing to watch something I’d imagined for months actually come together and look the way I hoped it would.
Then… it got better. Steve Harper, lighting designer extraordinaire, got to work. I went home for the day.
When I came back Friday morning, I walked in to this:
Whatever I’d done, Steve had magnified. In this case, the lighting really made the art dazzle. I was stunned that the installation looked better than I could have imagined it would. My only problem? There was no time to celebrate, because the pressure was on– all this work was pointless if I goofed up the talk.
So I practiced again and again. We got out the ladder and straightened a few more squares (the cord had stretched once gravity took hold) and I practiced the talk in my head as I climbed up and down that ladder. Then there was a tech rehearsal, and dinner and bed.
I woke at five Saturday morning. We didn’t leave the house until 7:45, but I was ready and sitting by the door at ten after seven. I looked like this.
I was the third speaker. First up, Tyler, who killed it. He made everyone laugh and really delivered an amazing talk. He came off stage as I was getting mic’d and he said to me, “This– right now– feels really good.” I only hoped I could agree with him in 30 minutes time.
As I walked to the stage, I had two distinct thoughts. The first: “Okay, Jolie. You’ve worked on this for months. It all comes down to this. Don’t mess it up.”
And then as the lights came up on stage, I had a clear feeling of all the people watching from Idaho to Florida, Brooklyn to Berlin. I realized how many people were rooting for me and I sunk very deeply in to my skin and started just the way I’d planned. Once I had that first laugh from the audience, I knew I was going to nail this talk.
I still haven’t seen the video, but I already know a few things I’d do differently next time. I’ll spare you the self-critique, but it’s always good to know how to improve.
Once I stepped off stage, I was finally able to look at this installation– almost as if for the first time. I returned to my seat and looked up and thought, “Holy hell. I made that.” It wasn’t a moment for the Hallelujah Chorus, but it felt like a bigger triumph. All day, I watched as the lighting changed and people responded to the work. It’s a pretty spectacular thing to see people interact with my work in that way. I’m still pondering it.
Verbal processor that I am, I’m betting you might read a bit more about the impact this project had on me over the next few weeks. The strands are down now, but the pictures and video are yet to come. Stay tuned.