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Making Earth Work: Leighton and Geist’s land art in Charlotte

by Linda Luise Brown

March 8, 2012

Editor's note: You can see Geist's smaller, gallery-sized sculpture and Leighton’s works on paper and fiber construction at the New Gallery of Modern Art. The small, well-lit art gallery is located in the Radcliffe Building on the Green, across South Tryon Street from The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. But you have to hurry. The exhibition closes on March 15th.

Patricia Leighton and Del Geist  work with very larges canvases: outdoors in the lush English landscapes of Devon; the drier, harsher terrain of the American West; and swathes of Canada’s greenest landscape near Banff. Now they have come to Charlotte to create the city’s largest ever artwork, a massive sculpted landform with totemic markers at the proposed UNC Charlotte light rail station.

“Stone • earth • paper,” the enticing first show in Charlotte by this well-traveled pair, is now on view at The New Gallery of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte through March 15th.

Seven Runes, by Patricia LeightonThe show offers a glimpse of some past and present works of art by partners Leighton and Geist, with a selection of projects rendered on paper by Patricia Leighton, plus her striking fiber and wood sculpture that leans against the entry wall to the gallery like a poignantly discarded Plains Indian travois. Bold sculptures of black slate, poised and stacked in steel frames by Del Geist, command the floor space, while smaller stones loom from the walls.

But it is a future project, to be installed much farther northeast from this fresh, easy-to-visit art gallery in uptown Charlotte, that is the artists’ major focus.

Land art at the rail station

About a year ago, Leighton and Geist, who have worked together for more than 20 years, won a Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) commission for the Lynx Blue Line Rail Extension to the UNC Charlotte campus light rail station. The genesis for the idea came from David Walters, a Professor of Urban Design at UNC Charlotte. When Walters, a former CATS Art-in-Transit advisory board chair for more than five years, studied the site in question, he realized that the visual drama of the train line, exiting a tunnel under Hwy 29 and crossing a bridge over Toby Creek on the campus, was a prime site for a land art earthwork, defining the station as a place of arrival and departure for the university.

Several people were involved in making this happen, chief amongst them Pallas Lombardi, CATS Art-in-Transit Program Manager, who knew that a project of this ambition would require collaboration on a large scale. As part of the contract process, Ms. Lombardi arranged for the artists to work with other design and engineering professionals.

Leighton and Geist have been working out details of their concept with CATS engineers and local landscape architects, Land Design, together with botanists and horticulturists to research native grasses and other indigenous vegetation, and a geologist from the university to assist in the search for native regional stones. To further enrich the arrangements, both artists are active in the community as resident artists at the McColl Center for Visual Art, and teach UNC Charlotte art and architecture students in their studio classrooms.

A confluence of energies

Events that seem serendipitous – having a show in Charlotte at the same time they are designing a major earthwork for Charlotte; and achieving successful collaborations in working with CATS and teaching students - is what Del Geist describes as a “confluence of energies.”

The fruits of this complex confluence will indeed bring something entirely new to our city. When the earthwork and totems are realized in about five years’ time, the impact will be huge for people in Charlotte – tourists and natives alike – as they ride the Blue Line northeast to go to class, to watch the university’s championship soccer team, or to fill the seats of the new football stadium. People who can’t wait five years for the project’s completion can at least whet their appetites by studying online one of Leighton’s trademark works developed in collaboration with Geist  – the “Sawtooth Ramps," a massive modeling of earth alongside a freeway in Scotland.

Skal, by Del GeistGeist’s signature pieces involve carefully selected stones, often massive, usually in combination, raised from the earth and repositioned in carefully site-specific ways. He often designs with repeating elements in formation, and his rows of stone shapes upon steel legs make a strong statement when implemented among the gentler undulations of Leighton’s green pastures and other particulars of nature she chooses to reshape.

Geist’s sculpture is forceful and “masculine,” often jagged and “dangerous-looking” in form and strength, even intimidating in a gallery setting. His constructions -- made of great shards of slate and chunky boulders and galvanized steel -- cry out for large, open, outdoor landscape settings. In the gallery setting, patrons need to exercise caution!

While Leighton tends to work in concert with a setting, Geist often creates work that counterpoises the actual landscape by using massive rocks and poles to make his abstracted statements. The works of both artists are reduced in scale, and “domesticated” in the gallery from their raw, natural settings, but when you realize the breadth of the show’s content, you’ll see that it offers a much larger view. Indeed, the intimate setting of the gallery re-presents the artists’ work almost like a map, a chart for patrons to read their way into the larger, literal and metaphorical landscape.

Within the complex design process central to much of their work, the artists retain traditional handcraft working methods. They don’t use computer-aided design programs themselves: when their studio models and drawings for a project are complete, they hand them over to engineers who create digital mock-ups and construction drawings. “Engineers,” Geist says, “are the glue of the Earth.” More than 100 people may be involved in the completion of this project from inception through detailed design and construction.

Leighton, originally of Scotland, and Geist, whose background is decidedly American, met in California in 1983, and have established a successful working method. They are a known entity of talent – committed visionaries who work well with others.

“We like deadlines,” says Leighton, describing their hectic Charlotte schedule. “We find ourselves using both right and left sides of the brains, back-and-forth.”

Light and shadow

The products of the artists’ visions are captured and conceptualized in the many drawings and prints taped on the walls of the second-floor studio they occupy at the McColl Center for Visual Art. The space emits a pleasant buzz of activity, with the tabletops filled with maquettes and mock-ups, sculptural masses with tiny human figures. The working scale model of their UNC Charlotte site-specific installation stands to one side, showing how the planned earthwork slopes steeply in places, sculpted to capture light.

“Light is very important and significant,” explained Leighton, “and in this case the sun will graze the north face of the slope at certain hours. There will be lots of light and shadows for visual effect.”

Place making

While much public art in Charlotte is added onto a site later to “fix” or otherwise humanize the existing space – such as setting a sculptural piece in front of a building, or in a blank plaza (think of the various sculptures around the junction of Trade and Tryon Streets) - the integrated, multi-disciplinary process so well developed by Leighton, Geist, and their technical team illustrates a more deeply rooted form of “place making.”

This kind of public art is incorporated into the urban design of the site from the conceptual stage – literally from the ground up – and this particular CATS project promises to be an exemplar of its type. Here, with our somewhat checkered past concerning public art, it’s still relatively rare for artists to work with engineers and designers from the very beginning of a public art collaboration. Lombardi, the CATS Art-in-Transit program manager, explained that the selection of Patricia Leighton and Del Geist had a lot to do with the fact that “they are experienced public artists who take a comprehensive approach to integrating art into place that stands the aesthetic and physical tests of time.”

There could be no better setting for an artwork that will last for decades - even hundreds of years - than a university, an institution that’s a creator and keeper of knowledge and culture. When we ride the train into the university station, walk across campus lost in thought, or jog along the much-used Toby Creek Greenway, we will all be enriched by the work of these two artists who contrive visual poetry from bringing together earth, stone and sky.

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Tags: Radcliffe Building, charlotte, sculpture, land art, geist, leighton

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