A Dialogue of Forms: Interview with Vicki Scuri, The ELP Airway Artist

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Going from printmaking to public art seems like a big step. How did it happened in your case?
Going from printmaking to public art took a leap of faith. I resigned my teaching job at Whitman College to move to Seattle to pursue a career as an artist in a larger city, with my peers. Through a series of coincidences, I rented a studio on the line of the proposed Downtown Seattle Transit Project, a major public works project for transit. I saw the DSTP call for artists and I applied. Four artists were selected for the design team, three well-known artists from New York City, and me. For me, this was a big opportunity. The design team spanned three years. By the time, I completed my projects I was schooled and retooled in interdisciplinary design. This marks the beginning of Vicki Scuri SiteWorks.

Why is it that the role of the public audience —as a more active participant— is gaining more importance?
As culture becomes more connected through the Internet, social networks, YouTube, Interactive gaming, and technology, it seems a natural outgrowth for those interested in culture to engage the dialogue of public art. Public art is accessible and it does shape the environment and affect quality of life. In my experience, community participation promotes awareness and helps to improve the built environment. There is a tipping-point that is required to change the status quo. Participating in public dialogue moves the discourse forward, until eventually change happens.

Tell us about your research process when you work in each city and what did you find in El Paso that ended up shaping the Airway Gateway project.
My research method begins with a weeklong site review and information gathering process, including conversation, review of documents, local lore, history, flora and fauna and more. Essentially, I thoroughly document the site and explore the unique opportunities presented by the project. In El Paso, I started by documenting 10 miles of aging infrastructure along I-10, envisioning a plan to revitalize it. I create a menu of opportunities that includes drawings, texts, photographs and proposals for the project. Airway presented a unique opportunity to create a “gateway” for the Airport and Downtown. Flight, the wind, the sky, the native plants and the mountains inspire me.

The Airway Gateway perfectly balances opposite signifiers of nature and industry. How is this accomplished and how did this idea came about?
I have always been fascinated by the metaphorical resolution of opposites. I saw this possibility of resolution in Airway. Airway, once an industrial site, transforming to residential/commercial, is framed in a backdrop of mountains and desert. To me, it seemed that the El Paso’s natural terrain needed to restate its balance here, to be celebrated here. Through removing hardscape, introducing native plants, and creating a dialogue of forms, inspired by industry and avionics, we suggest plant forms and transform an industrial aesthetic into one that symbolizes growth and renewal through implied shapes, evoking the native landscape.

Your work seems to be coming from Land Art and art related to phenomenology installations (Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell) more than public art. I wonder if this is an influence and what other artists are important to locate your work.
Land Art, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Robert Irwin, Mary Miss, Athena Tacha and many other environmental artists, inspire me. Similar to them, my passion springs from the land and from natural phenomena. Perhaps, natural structures and natural systems are my strongest influences, but I am indebted to the many artists before me, whose works created a conversation about art and environment. I am contributing to this conversation through my works in infrastructure, prompting an examination at how we value our environment in our public works.

When cities have immediate needs, how do you reconcile funding for public artworks? In other words, how do you justify your public work as a priority over other public programs?
To me, public works are for the greater good of our culture, for our collective spirit as well as for our fundamental needs. I feel like my work fulfills a need, a gap that exists, in our culture. I’ve been at this a long time. Now, whole fields have sprung up, that premise their work on cross-disciplinary studies that address this gap, between culture, community, environment and public works.

Your work is now giving an identity to El Paso. What else does this city needs?
El Paso is reinventing itself, regaining a sense of itself as a whole, in its desert environment. More than anything, El Paso needs more natural systems integrated within the City, and less concrete throughout the region. Removing slope paving from the highway system, restoring slopes with native plants and trees, promoting rain harvesting, would greatly improve the quality of life in El Paso. El Paso’s infrastructure and public art program is making great strides, creating connections with community and place throughout the City. This needs to continue and to expand to all neighborhoods, knitting the fabric of this community together with its environment and its unique culture.

Do you have a dream project? if so, what is it about?
My dream project is Airway. I have always wanted to do a project that features wind turbines, light sculptures, programmable lighting, native plants and pedestrian enhancements, marking a major gateway to a city. For me, Airway is this project. In the future, I aspire to create holistic environments that contribute to the health of our culture and our environment, expressing vitality and shaping our public places, improving our collective quality of life and spirit.