Electronic billboards blaze with wordless images. ExpoChicago is back. It’s the annual rendezvous of gallerists, collectors, artists, and art friendly crowds at Navy Pier and hotspots around town. Meanwhile, the third Chicago Architecture Biennial kicks off September 19 at the Chicago Cultural Center with a largesse of exhibitions, performances, and lectures that stretches across the city until January 2020.

Photos provided by Lucy Slivinski

Artist Talk by Lucy Slivinski at ExpoChicago: Saturday, 9/21, 11:30 am in EXPO Café

Luminescence at 2018 ExpoChicago, installation view. Photo by Jyoti Srivstava.

We’re sitting in Lucy’s studio with the Green Line El rumbling outside along Lake Street. Her studio is crowded with elements for Heavenly Bodies, the installation she’s building for 2019 ExpoChicago.

Lise: The installation you created last year must have been well received if they invited you back.  Let’s start our conversation with talking about how you became involved with ExpoChicago.

Lucy: This is the second year that Expo Director Tony Karman invited me to create a light installation for the dining area. This year I’m also creating sculptural floor pieces for the VIP Lounge. It’s quite an opportunity for an artist to present their work on this scale and I thank Tony for it.

I’ve been working for a number of years with recycled metal to create functional light sculptures. My idea for 2018 Expo was to combine steel structures with a lighter form. Luminescence, last year’s Expo installation was made of wood and metal. I used thin strips of wood similar to the reeds used to make baskets. I’ve also expanded the wood materials to include edge banding that’s used for counter tops. It’s available in many types of wood.

Lucy Slivinski in her studio with Heavenly Bodies in progress. Photo by Lise McKean.

Lise: Seeing that your studio is adjacent to large work-working shop, it makes sense that wood has found its way into your work.

Lucy: Yes, this is Charlie Hall’s wood working studio. With a professional space like this at hand I’ve become more acquainted with woodworking. He also collects reclaimed wood.

Lise: I saw a lot of wood outside too. One way or another, wood looms in your visual field here at the studio.

Lucy: I’ve been looking at those outdoor lots stacked with reclaimed lumber for years. Out back is a guy who has his own saw mill and turns trees into boards and I always see his scraps. All this incubated the idea to start combining wood with steel. I come from a background in fiber and know basket-making techniques, so it was natural for me. Then I started playing with it.

Lise: The organic and metallic materials work well together. They create a dynamic tension.

Lucy: I play with that a lot. I find the metallic objects that go into these sculptures at a salvage yard. Just going to the salvage yard is an experience in itself. Everything that’s scrapped from industry and households is there. The yard I go to is mostly industrial scrap. When I first look at the scrap materials, I see them that way. But when I bring them back to my studio, then I’m forming them into things that are completely new and unrelated to their original form or function.

Heaps of salvaged metal. Photo by Lucy Slivinski.

Lise: Do you mean that when you bring scrap metal back to the studio, you treat it more as raw material than as a found object?

Lucy: Right. It’s raw material to make into something else.

Another thing about wood and why I brought it into the steel forms relates to the way that it holds the light so differently than steel. It brings warmth to the sculpture and to an environment. That’s what I conceptualized for last year: I wanted to carve out a space inside the big shell of the exhibition hall at Navy Pier and to define a space. I think that’s what everyone’s trying to do there. I felt the wood combination in the pieces created a warm environment that became very welcoming, softer, more personal, homey, than everything around it.

Luminescence at 2018 ExpoChicago, installation view. Photo by Jyoti Srivstava.

Lise: I remember your piece  very distinctly. When I think about what dominates the space at Expo, I think about the booths that are typically defined from the floor up. But your installation created space from above by lowering the high ceiling and interrupting the grid of the metal trusses. Luminescence could be seen from just about anywhere in the hall and the warm light it cast connected the installation with the people beneath it.

Lucy: It was totally functional, to light up the dining area. But the light was soft compared to the brightly light in the booths that spotlight artworks. Luminescence created an intimate space for people when they’re taking a break from all the high-powered buzz of the show.

Luminescence, installation view.

Lise: Since it was an overhead installation, you could see that space from a distance. It beckoned.

Lucy: This year I’m expanding on what I did last year and I’m calling it Heavenly Bodies.

Lise: How are you expanding? Is the space larger?

Lucy: I’m using a series of metal forms or multiples, but each one ends up being different because of what I weave onto them. I’m essentially weaving the wood onto them. Each piece is one of a kind because I can’t duplicate exactly what I did on the previous one. Then I thought, I want them to be even more individual.

Since the woven part is different on every single one, I want them to be being more like beings, like a heavenly body—a star or a planet—or a being that transforms itself way beyond what it actually is. It produces energy. There’s energy radiating from it that’s more than just the light energy. It’s the energy of the interaction. And that energy is infinite. This is what’s at the base of all my work.

Heavenly Bodies at 2019 ExpoChicago, installation view.

Lise: Your works begin as multiples and you weave them into individuals. What’s the role of improvisation in the way you interweave wood with the metal forms? Would you say that there’s an improvisational aspect to your work in the sense that you start with a form and you’re responding to the present moment, the specificity of the wood material and the metal form?

Bloom, Heavenly Bodies

Lucy: Exactly. Improvisation is very important to me and a huge part of my process. The way I work always incorporates it. I might have a plan of how the structure is built, but then there’s always an element that I leave out. It becomes something else when I’m in the moment, when I’m making.

Lise: How do you start? Are you given the dimensions of the area you need to light?

Lucy: Yes, they tell me the size of the area and the layout of the tables. I’m limited because of the trusses. But this year, I’m also creating a central installation that’s off the truss. It’s a large-scale work. There will be 32 individual pieces on a framing structure that’s composing a single installation.

Lise: Is that something you sketched out in advance?

Lucy: I started with making the individual pieces themselves.

Lise: How did you make the individual elements cohere into the final installation?

Lucy: My partner and collaborator, Kahil El’Zabar curated the placement of the pieces last year for Luminescence. It was quite an involved process but we didn’t have to move the pieces around much. He has the ability to see the big picture. Even when he’s working on the details of something, he sees the big thing in his head.

Kahil has been a mentor to me and has taught me a lot about improvisation. Although improvisation was always an element in my work, I identified it more when I started collaborating with him to create sculptures during his musical performances. He’s a percussionist, composer, and artist. Jazz musicians hone their process by practicing so that in the moment when improvisation happens, you can be free because you know your process. You don’t have to think about. It just comes to you.

Wind, Heavenly Bodies

Lise: That sounds like what’s often called flow—the flow of creative energy.

Lucy: Right, it’s a flow. You step up, you turn the switch, and it goes. So even in improvisational performance pieces where I have maybe three hours to make a piece, there’s no question about what the piece is going to be or whether it’ll turn out. I can create in the moment because I work so much. I don’t have to ask, is it going to stand up, is it going to hold together. It will become something amazing because of all the energy in that moment and all the practice I’ve done. There’s a sense that you’re always prepared. Improvisation brings energy to the work because it’s in the moment.

Lise: Talking about being prepared, your studio is in an old neighborhood firehouse. Being prepared was fundamental to daily life at a firehouse. At the same time, improvisation goes beyond preparation because it makes possible a form of presence. It’s about responding to what’s going on around you.

Lucy: Preparation makes it possible to create in the present. I bring selected materials and have particular ways of building for my performance pieces. I’m prepared in the sense that I brought certain materials and I go from there.

Lise: Going back your Expo installations, you’re given the dimensions, you’re thinking about the elements that are going to be in it, and you work with Kahil to formulate the piece in its entirety. Is there a point where you sketch out the whole thing? Or is the final installation literally an act of improvisation?

Lucy: We work with the elements that I bring. Kahil might not have seen all of them at once, but he’s familiar with what I’m doing.

Lise: What about the additional sculptural works you have been invited to make for the VIP Lounge?

Lucy Slivinski, sculptural lighting, 2019 ExpoChicago.

Lucy: A talented interior designer is working on the Lounge, using some super high-end furniture. I made floor pieces because they asked me to create sculptural lighting that wasn’t hanging. They’re about seven feet high and each one is a different being.

I couldn’t do any of this work without my assistant, Theo Glaser, who’s actually my son. He does the welding and heavy lifting. He’s a very intuitive engineer and problem solver. I’m so lucky that he’s easy to work with. He understands my process.

Lise: These installations at Expo give you a lot of exposure. At the same time, some artists are reluctant to work within the parameters of a commission.

Lucy: To some extent artists are always operating within parameters. And this is a set of parameters that helps earn a living. An artist has to have multiple income streams. I have my sculptural lighting, wall pieces, and public art pieces. The wall pieces are more difficult to sell because they involve placing a three-dimensional object into someone’s space. Sculptural lighting is easier.

Lise: You mention having a variety of income streams. Some artists rely on teaching. Do you teach?

Lucy: Right from the start I was afraid to go into teaching. For one, you have to work for an institution and that means politics and rules. And if you’re a teacher, you have to put energy into teaching and your students and other people. I wanted my energy to go in my work. It was a purposeful decision. Although I love teaching workshops—you come in for a limited time, you put all this energy into it, and then you’re done. Teaching is ongoing and that’s totally different.

Lise: Your comments about teaching seem connected to what you said earlier about energy and practice, and the prominent place of energetics in your work. And where does energy come from? It comes from the found objects that you incorporate or recreate, but it mainly comes from you.

Energy Throne, performance installation, N’Namdi Contemporary, Miami/Basel

Lucy: Energy is all around us. It’s being open to receive it and be in it. It will always replenish. Part of self-awareness is understanding how much energy we have and how it can be replenished.

Lise: Some people are the energizer bunny with an exceptional endowment of energy, but most of us aren’t. It sounds like your strategy was to direct your energy to art-making rather than teaching.

Lucy: I feel I was really lucky that I went to graduate school and then spent five years as a young artist in my studio working on all these different processes. At that point I had stopped weaving. I was making up ways to make things and went through all these processes. I was able to create my own voice. I was very grounded by the time I was ready to put my work out there and let it be my means of making living. If a young person doesn’t or can’t take that time, it’s harder to do so later when you’re trying to make a living and it becomes easier be influenced by whatever you can do and whatever might be popular.

Lise: It sounds like those five years after your MFA formed the foundation for ongoing growth and exploration as an artist. But your career shows that the foundation or core is also dynamic, it’s in motion in the sense of being enlarged by ongoing experience and improvisation. In fact, your works embody movement and energy. Do you have a background in dance or movement?

Lucy: I took modern dance all through high school and college. Theater was huge for me in high school. I was lucky to have great teachers for movement and improvisation classes. We were always making up stuff. It was very free. And the way they taught us was very free.

Lise: The movement in your works also feels akin to rhythm and music. Music was playing before we started the interview. We talked about improvisation and you mentioned Kahil is a percussionist. Can you talk some more about how music and rhythm figure in your work?

Rebirth, performance installation,Chicago Academy of Music, Chapel Gallery, Chicago.

Lucy: I always have music playing. Although I usually listen to jazz, I’m try to listen to new things—different types of jazz or new people or explore one person. Jazz is so interesting to me because of improvisation, where it takes you, and the role of rhythm—it provides the structure for improvisation.

Lise: We can draw a parallel between jazz and how you build your lighting sculptures. The metal frames are the structure and the weaving of the wooden materials is improvised, as is arranging the sculptural objects in the final installation.

Lucy: The work in Expo is exactly that. It comes from fertile ground that’s been nurtured over years. The energy is there, too.  For me art can produce a hopeful awakening to our society. The way I make and present art is based on this sense of hope and possibility.

Lise: On the other end, there’s the way that your work is experienced. The hope comes out of the experience of energy, of creativity and movement. The things that we’ve been talking about go into aesthetic experience—that mixture of sensory, intellectual, and emotional elements that can be so mysterious and moving and get you right in the gut.

Lucy: Exactly. It’s about that for me when I’m making my work, and I hope it’s like that for people experiencing it.

Lise: At Expo you have large stage for a lot of people to notice and experience your work.

Lucy: I love it. I get very excited about big spaces. I started thinking, I could go beyond the trusses all the way to the ceiling and make something massive. I had to hone myself a bit.

Lise: Speaking about massive, what about the public sculpture that you recently installed in Uptown?

Lucy: That work was part of the 50 by 50 Neighborhood Arts Project. The City of Chicago invited 50 artists to create a work for the city’s 50 neighborhoods. I was invited to create a sculpture for an island at the busy intersection of Montrose, Sheridan, and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood. I couldn’t conceive of putting something small there because there’s so much traffic. There are more cars going by than people walking past. It’s not a peaceful spot.

Bird of Epiphany, performance installation, Museo De Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba.

I thought about Uptown and what was happening in my work. For the past five or so years the Phoenix was coming into my work and I thought that would be a perfect symbol for Uptown. It’s such a vibrant neighborhood and it’s also in a renaissance. They’re trying to figure out how to keep what’s been there and bring new people and new construction into the mix and have it all work. I proposed Phoenix Rising. It’s a big bird on top of a symbolic nest, which is on top of a tower. It’s completely made out of salvaged materials. The bird is made from recycled stainless steel and the nest is made from salvaged bicycle frames in all different colors. The tower is from big steel pipes.

The work was so big that we made it in three parts in three studios. I didn’t see it together until we assembled it on site. It’s about 30 feet high. The wingspan is probably 26 feet and it has a long tail. It has a real presence in Uptown. It’s kind of an icon. It accomplished what I wanted—to produce an outward energy that looks north to Uptown and to be a symbol of the community. People have embraced it and give me feedback on it.

Lise: The Phoenix is a powerful symbol because it simultaneously refers to the past and points to the future.

Lucy: People like to throw things into the piece because the nest is an open network of bicycle frames. After the Gay Pride Parade people threw beads in there. Someone told me there’s a purse up there. Of course, plastic bags get stuck too. It’s hilarious.

Lise: It’s become interactive artwork, with people passing by and adding their own touches to it.

Lucy: Maybe one day birds will build their nest in it, too.

Phoenix Rising, 50 by 50 Neighborhood Arts Project, Chicago.



Lise McKean