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IlaSahai Prouty's plaster casts and dream books

Artspace's summer artist-in-residence, IlaSahai Prouty, has been working on an installation of sculptures and castings that explore the imagery of recurring dreams.

Photo by Lissa Gotwals

Artspace's summer artist-in-residence, IlaSahai Prouty, has been working on an installation of sculptures and castings that explore the imagery of recurring dreams.

Artspace's Gallery One has undergone its radical summer transformation once again.

A cacophony of materials and objects cover four long tables that form the workstation of IlaSahai Prouty, this year's summer artist-in-residence. All manner of bottles, molds of silicone and alginate, brushes poised in containers of paints and buckets for mixing plaster line the table tops and the floor. Big sacks of plaster and silica are stacked against a wall. Finished plaster casts of fishing weights, hands, feet and faces rest beside random artifacts--a Rubik's Cube, a Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone and multiple plaster casts of a 2-inch tall rubber doll--in the process of being painted. They're strewn amongst a battered brass funnel (actually, a burned trumpet), empty paper coffee cups, a hacksaw, X-Acto knives and pottery ribs. A sewing machine stands at the ready next to two hot plates holding cans filled with wax. Saffron-painted journal pages are clipped with clothes pins on a string line to dry.

From this mildly chaotic space, Prouty's artistic vision is taking shape. On Friday, Aug. 4, Prouty's show Dream Repeater will open just in time for Raleigh's First Friday event. Visitors to last month's First Friday were invited to contribute accounts of their dreams to Prouty's project by writing them in blank books that were placed in the Gallery One studio, which at that time was relatively bare. The imagery from those dreams and from Prouty's own are the raw material she has chosen to work with.

"It's been great working here," she says of her Artspace experience. "I've been rooted in personal material in the past. Working with the dreams--mine and others'--is feeling different. It's turned out to be a really rich way of working. There's a perception in our society that to be a dreamer is to be less connected to reality, less grounded. For me, dreams can be concrete experiences."

Since the 1998 inauguration of the Summer Artist-in-Residence Program, Artspace's Gallery One serves, during the month of July, as the working studio of a visiting artist. That artist creates an exhibition for the following month in the same space.

Prouty, who is 36 years old, was carefully chosen from a field of approximately 20 applicants, according to Artspace's director of programs and exhibitions, Lia Newman. "We selected Ila because of the artistic quality of her work and the exciting project she proposed for her residency," Newman says.

The artist's teaching talents were an important factor as well. The summer artist-in-residence teaches classes to adults and children throughout the month. "Her interactions with the public have been wonderful, particularly with youths," Newman says. "There are many talented artists, but not all of them can teach. Ila is a born educator as well as an exceptional, thought-provoking artist."

Having earned her BFA in painting from Brown University and an MFA in printmaking from the California School of Arts, Prouty spent three years as a resident artist at the Penland School of Crafts, where she began exploring glass as a medium. She recently bought land in Bakersville, a few miles outside Penland, where she plans to build a home. She shuttled back and forth between her busy teaching schedule to slump-mold glass pieces for her Artspace show in a special kiln on the property.

Named for her grandmother Ila, whose grandmother's grandmother was a slave, Prouty was also given the name "Sahai," meaning "the time of day when things are half-seen" in Amharic, an Ethiopian language, by her parents. She is of biracial heritage, a fact she says is "in my thinking about my work, but I don't necessarily have to have it in the foreground. I felt like Adrian Piper and others had done everything that I wanted to do, and I had permission to make the work that I wanted to make instead of having to make my artwork be a political statement. I tend not to be pointed directly at that."

Prouty often uses casts of her own body parts in her work, incorporating the natural distortions of the casting as a desired effect. Float, an installation presented at Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro, was comprised of a field of glass panels meticulously hung from the ceiling on monofilament. Each panel contained a nearly hidden or obscured body part. As a whole, the configuration appeared to levitate, reading as an atmospheric evocation of light on water, a mysterious, shimmery translucence. The effect seems fitting for someone who grew up in the fishing community of Gloucester, Mass., and who is named for the dream times evoked by fog, dawn or dusk.

"Beneath," her outdoor sculptural installation at Duke's Road in Sight student-curated show last year, suspended blown glass plumb bobs (fabricated for her by glassblower Greg Fidler) above holes in the ground that were fitted with mirrors, an exploration of the Yoruba belief that reverses Western notions of heaven and earth. To the Yoruba, Prouty says, "up" represents what is transient, while "down" represents what is good, solid and warm. In that cosmology, the earth is where souls reside.

The loss of a close friend just prior to Prouty's years in graduate school profoundly shaped her work, she says. When she speaks about her artistic process, she sounds comforted by the repetition of casting objects. Prouty is aware of finding a kind of solace in the cast, the empty mold and the process that allows replacement of the lost object.

On the day we meet, Prouty is just getting into the working groove at her new studio. "It's going to be hard to stop making things and put things up on the wall," she says. Within the week, she will have to start installing for her opening.

click to enlarge Prouty cleans up a casting of her own hand holding a spoon. This sculpture is part of a series in her exhibit, which will be on display at Artspace through Sept. 9. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Prouty cleans up a casting of her own hand holding a spoon. This sculpture is part of a series in her exhibit, which will be on display at Artspace through Sept. 9.
So far, she has hung a few pieces--mostly casts of hands holding objects from a series she is calling Balancing Act. She says they will be reconfigured in groupings for the show. A feather balances on the tip of a cast plaster hand that appears to thrust out of the wall. Several other hands along the wall hold other objects--one holds string; another holds a spoon upon which balances one of the tiny cast plaster dolls, perched at the spoon's edge, ready to take a dive or be administered like medicine.

Sewn-together pages will be displayed on loops so that viewers can read the dreams of others. For a long time after her friend's death, Prouty says the color literally drained out of her work. The paper loop on the wall at Artspace, in vibrant indigo, and the saffron dream journal pages waiting to be sewn together, are a departure from the neutral palette of her previous pieces. This much color, she says, "looks like an exclamation point to me."

A grouping of plaster casts of fishing weights will be hung from the ceiling, transformed into a "cloud," again an image derived from a conflation of a few different dreams gathered from the log books and one of her own dreams. The fishing weights also tie into her maritime upbringing, which is also amply reflected in earlier works involving casts of ropes and knots.

She also hopes to present a completed figurative work cast of fragmented body parts rendered in pale blue glass, if she can finish it in time. Installed on the wall, Prouty says the effect might resemble scattered parts of a doll rendered life-sized.

In her current work, "the imagery is more precise and the narrative is more open-ended, potentially more accessible to the viewer," she says. "I am hoping that the viewer will finish or interpret the dream."

Dream Repeater opens during First Friday on Aug. 4 from 6 to 10 p.m. The exhibit will be on display in Artspace Gallery One through Sept. 9. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Artspace is located at 201 E. Davie St. in downtown Raleigh. For more information, call 821-2787 or visit www.artspacenc.org.

  • Artspace's Gallery One has undergone its radical summer transformation once again.

More by Michele Natale

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