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‘Embrace’ the Journey

by Christina Ritchie Rogers

‘Embrace’ the Journey

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Picture by Christina Ritchie Rogers

May 9, 2013

New installation aims to inspire Children's Hospital visitors


Artist Brian Knep draws like a 3-year-old girl.

But he does it on purpose. The creatures in his latest installation, which opened at the Levine Children’s Hospital last week, stem from doodles drawn by the 3-year-old daughter of one of his friends.

He found the girl's drawings in the family’s recycling bin, and was strangely drawn to the little…thingamajigs. He rescued the crudely drawn creatures, with circles for bodies, lines for appendages, and dots for facial features, though he had no idea what he was going to do with them. Nine years later, those doodles and others inspired by them appear in eight of Knep’s pieces – including his latest, Embrace.

Knep, a computer scientist-turned-media artist and his wife Natalie Andrew, a Harvard mycology research scientist and sculptor, jointly received the McColl Center’s Carolinas Healthcare artist-in-residence grant earlier this year. As part of the grant they collaborated to create an installation for the children’s hospital based on The Hero’s Journey, a narrative pattern named by Joseph Campbell.

Campbell says the pattern can be found in stories throughout history, across geographic, cultural, and religious boundaries. In it, a hero leaves his/her familiar world and enters an unfamiliar, often supernatural realm where s/he encounters different forces and challenges s/he must overcome before returning from the adventure with a unique ability to help others.

The theme of facing and overcoming challenges seemed fitting for a piece in a children’s hospital, Knep and Andrew said.

A work in progress: Embrace gets installed in the hallway. (Photo by Christina Ritchie Rogers)Simple Yet Complex

The installation equipment is fairly simple: A computer, a projector, some cables and switches, all running in accordance with the animation program Knep wrote. And at first glance, the piece itself also is fairly simple: projected on the wall of a highly-trafficked hospital hallway, the critters – “bubs,” as Knep calls them - float and move around in a ring surrounding a larger bub-looking critter, while another bub-looking critter moves up and down outside of the ring. On the wall is a knob and a few feet away from it a button, both low enough that children can reach them. 

As viewers interact with the piece by twisting the knob or pushing the button, the seemingly simple setup takes on new meaning.

“It’s so playful and so simple and yet so elegant, and that gives it its power,” said Suzanne Fetscher, Executive Director of the McColl Center for Visual Art.

On the surface, the piece is a fun video-game-like thing that invites patients and their families to play, giving them a much-needed distraction in the midst of their physical and emotional struggles. But through that interaction, deeper content “seeps in,” delivering powerful messages slowly over time, Fetscher said.

In fact, Knep and Andrew say the viewer interaction is a critical part of the piece – without it, the installation is incomplete.

Forces at play

The ring in which the bubs continuously travel represents the current of life, and is a physical environment, Knep explained. Each bub has a unique mass, weight, and velocity, so each moves in a different way when confronted with an outside force – not unlike the ways in which people respond differently to the forces in their lives, he said.

The critter outside the ring represents the “herald” in the hero’s journey, or the force that calls the hero to action. When a viewer depresses the button on the wall, the herald grows agitated and bumps into the bubs, altering their path and sending them bouncing in different ways.

“When you challenge the lives, their path becomes more complicated,” Knep said.

The critter inside the ring represents the “threshold guardian” character in the journey, which challenges the hero to earn his passage forward. The more you spin the knob on the wall, the more the guardian critter grows and pushes the bubs outward, closer to the erratic Herald bumping into them.

Like the bubs, patients at the hospital are facing challenges in their lives; their paths have grown complicated due to illness or injury, and they need to figure out how to respond and continue. And like the bubs, they aren’t in it alone.

Natalie Andrew tests the piece during installation. (Photo by Christina Ritchie Rogers)“I love that there are two different dials (on the wall) so you have to be interacting with someone else,” Fetscher said. “It’s like the healthcare environment, where you are dependent on a lot of people.”

In some cases, the herald critter will knock a bub to the center of the ring, where it will take on a glowing light. The light can represent many things – understanding, enlightenment, health, growth, healing, etc. – it is something you earn as you deal with the challenges life throws at you, Knep said.

“Neither (the herald nor the guardian) is good or bad, they’re both good and bad,” Knep said.

Leave off the Labels

“There’s a lot of cultural pressure to be one thing or another,” Knep said, but he and Andrew aren’t so easily defined. Both trained scientists, Andrew holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics/electrical engineering, a Master’s Degree in cognitive psychology, and a Ph.D in cell biology, and she splits her time between the Harvard mycology lab and her nature-inspired artwork that includes living sculpture. Knep holds a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science and a Master’s degree in computer science, and also studied ceramics and glass blowing. He has worked as a software engineer on such major motion pictures as Jurrasic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek: Generations, started a technology company, is a published author, and now works as an artist full-time.

“Artists and scientists have an enormous overlap of mental processes,” Andrew said, and working in both fields feels “very natural.”

Knep sees things a little differently, and feels as though he wears two hats: his background in science is his “craft,” and through his artwork he is “trying to make that craft as impressive as possible,” he said. “There is overlap, but the difference in the process is that as an artist, you make their own meaning. You do your best work when you aren’t sure of the facts.”

Answers in Ambiguity

Knep and Andrew like that the ambiguity in Embrace allows for freedom in interpretation and changes based on perspective.

“Art can become very much about having an agenda,” Knep said, “and those pieces often fail.”

He and Andrew also like the location of the piece. “It can hit people out of nowhere,” Knep said. “Maybe you get absorbed for a minute.” In the hallway, the piece has “more utility that it would otherwise.”

The Choice was Easy

The hospital wanted to activate the hallway, located just off the main lobby.

“We want places that provide comfort, where kids can temporarily escape from uncomfortable things,” said Levine’s Public Information and Marketing Coordinator Kevin McCarthy.

“This was the first time we had the opportunity to do an interactive piece,” Fetscher said, and selecting Knep and Andrew for the grant “was a quick and easy decision.”

They received $10,000 in grant money for the 3-month residency and installation, which will be up in the hospital for one year.

“The piece is so poignant when you consider the medical journeys the patients and their families are on,” Fetscher said.

Whether visitors find inspiration and encouragement during hardship, or simply a moment of play and escape in the midst of their day, they will be able to relate to some aspect of Embrace, Andrew said, because it speaks on many levels to a shared human experience.



This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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Tags: Levine Children's Hospital, Charlotte, Brian Knep, Natalie Andrew, art installation, Embrace, McColl Center for visual Art, carolinas healthcare

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