Many Columbus natives were introduced to Dana Lynn Harper by her installation, Bloom Bloom. The billowing cloud of red-orange flagging tape emanates warmth and transports visitors into a new, but decidedly friendly, other world. Recently, Dana’s mural outside of ROY G BIV has been greeting visitors to the Short North. It depicts colorful, polymer clay diatoms created through an artistic evolution at the hands of Dana. Her work, regardless of scale, pulls you in with its vibrant colors and playful abstraction. It is no surprise that her studio is also full of color and play.
Dana skillfully oscillates between making big and small works. This has been very apparent in her recent flurry of artistic output. She created a large, outdoor installation for Independents’ Day, while at the same time planning for a pint-sized exhibition at S.Dot Gallery. This dollhouse exhibition will premiere on S.Dot’s Facebook page in the coming days. Dana will also have a few small works on display for CAW’s A Little Bit Closer at the Vanderelli Room which opens November 13th.
How does your process begin for a piece? Is it different for 2D work, sculpture, and installation?
Yes, it’s all different. I am always working on something 2D that is small. The smaller ones are more about play and intuition. They are sketches to me. From these smaller works, I usually come up with an idea for a sculpture or a bigger piece. Doing this process also introduces new materials. I’m a stressed person with a lot of anxiety, so if I just approached a new project by thinking, “I am going to make a badass installation,” it would be too much pressure. I have to relax and have no overhang of responsibility. If I only did big projects, I think I would be a totally different person.
As for the installations, I usually find a material I can buy en masse. Then I buy a lot of it and play around. I search for a mark that I can repeat over and over to create a big texture or a big pattern. It is all about manipulating a material and a culmination of marks.
What materials do you frequently use?
Resin. Flagging tape. Plastic. Lots of times I list “found plastic” – just weird stuff that I find. I am also into transparent things right now, so I also use plexiglass a lot or even found glass. The plan for the glass globes I bought at thrift stores is to build little worlds in each of them. I’m going to stack these little worlds so that you can see and appreciate them, but they are protected and loved by each other. Each one of these worlds represents a person for me – not a specific person, but more the beauty in individuality.
I just want to touch all your art! It calls to me!
I make everything to be touched. I don’t take care of things very well, so things have to be very durable to last my beating. I make my stuff to last.
You describe your work between undergraduate degree in Art and Tech and graduate degree in Sculpture as very feminist. Why is that?
I think it was the materials I was using. Every material had an absolute meaning. Panty hose, for example, signified restriction. What girl likes wearing panty hose? At that age, 22 or 23, I was just figuring out all of the gendered shit that’s happening and all of the stuff that was ingrained in my head that I thought was the truth. That part of my life was about shedding those expectations to get to the core of who I was. The work wasn’t more feminist, but it was more obvious to other people. I don’t see my work as less feminist now, I just see it as more honest.
The work that people would recognize now began about a year into grad school when color entered in a big way. Where did the color come from?
I was making 2D works for my Etsy store, using a bunch of spray paint and colored paper. At the same time, I was taking advanced sculpture and I brought in some of the materials and things I was working on. Someone in class asked me why all my 2D works were in crazy colors and my sculpture wasn’t. The simple answer was that I didn’t know how to handle color in a three dimensional object. Slowly after that, I began to experiment. The first really colorful object that I made was this cone with cut paper triangles of color completely covering it. There were three chairs around it that represented the three female friends who have been the most influential in my life. The chairs were around this colorful, paper cone “bonfire.” Being a woman is really hard, but I don’t have to spend my life being upset about that. I can celebrate the amazing things about being a woman and the amazing relationships I get to have with other women. That color just switched everything – from trying to understand my life and being upset, to being able to celebrate and focus on what makes life beautiful. It is not that I am ignoring the unjust world, but rather doing my best to make work that can be accessed by all people. The “bodies” or objects and shapes that appear are genderless, they are free. As an artist it is my responsibility to find my role, to find my purpose. By making installations, I can physically shape the world, I can forever change it and I can make spaces that invite everyone and anyone to enjoy.
What feedback did you get about that early, colorful sculpture?
I would set my art out in a critique and my fellow sculptors would talk about the objects – what every form represented. They were very vocal about the materials I used. Color was the last thing that was mentioned. I took a painting critique by chance because I heard amazing things about this professor, Micaela Amato. I showed up and she asked, “Where is all the work that you’ve made during summer?” So I showed it to her and all she wanted to talk about was color. She was able to tell me what was working and what wasn’t.
A lot of your materials, especially found plastic, are sourced from thrift, craft, and dollar stores. What is going through your head when you pick them out?
My work and process are sentimental. I pick objects that you could have seen as a kid. The color palette is from a roller rink or laser tag. Each object doesn’t have a conceptual meaning in and of itself, but the process of choosing things is based on a familiarity and the ability to be two things at once. For example, this is a plastic toy, but when I set into a piece it could be a weird, robotic plankton. The materials need to feel accessible, but still have the ability to be abstract.
You describe your work as “gentle,” This is especially appropriate for Bloom Bloom, but does it still apply to your plastic/resin works?
Bloom Bloom is like a gentle embrace. I don’t like it when people make art to force you to have an experience that maybe you aren’t ready for. I am saying that because I used to make really heavy work. So maybe it would be appropriate to say I didn’t like that in myself – forcing someone to feel your pain in order to connect with them. My work doesn’t beat you over the head. It is there to enjoy – to give you a moment of pleasure. It is there to counteract the negativity that we all face. It comes from a place where all people have potential. All people are wonderful. All people deserve to be loved. It is my way of giving you a hug or a gift. The plastic/resin works are still gentle to me, they disappear into the wall, they do not demand anything other than joy and attention.
Does making the big works fulfill a different need for you, or is it all the same?
I love when someone walks completely into something that I’ve made and their environment is totally changed. That was my biggest goal. Then I started making small things because… look at the size of my studio! That was the only reason I started working small. I originally made tiny units to eventually build up to something bigger. But now I think that working small is just as important as working big. I have more joy in the process of working small – more fun! I’m not over making installations. If you look at Yayoi Kusama, she makes massive installations, but also teeny, tiny drawings. An artist can do both.
You make work quickly and without a preconceived notion. You have said that the significance grows with the piece. Does that free you, or is it scary?
It is both and that can be hard to get used to it. In graduate school it was the scariest, because that was the time I realized it was happening – that I was working too fast and my mind didn’t have time to catch up. Saying that in a critique is hard. People just don’t want to hear that. Now it is easier and I can trust myself. I have this philosophy that if you make something bad and it fails, you had to make the bad thing in order to get to the good thing. Any making is necessary and essential. If I’m in the studio, that’s good enough. At least I am stepping in the right direction. It is also liberating to have endless possibilities. That is why I don’t like a plan. I like for the end goal to change based on the making.
What reaction are you looking for with your art?
It is very specific. You know when you see a really cute cat, and you are like, “Squeeeeee!” Sort of like the way kids react to cartoons with excitement and imagination. I want people to look and feel empowered by their own imagination.
You are so busy! What is on the horizon for you?
I am teaching at the Cultural Arts Center this fall. I will be featured at Stephanie Rond’s dollhouse gallery, S.Dot, for the month of November. I have a solo with Sean Christopher Gallery in the Short North that opens December 5th. And I will be jurying the CCAD exhibition called “Young Hearts” during that time. I am also working in collaboration with The Vanderelli Room on a permanent sculpture called the “Vandelier Tree,” that will be comprised of painted chandeliers that are hung outside in one of the trees.
Visit danalynnharper.com to view more of Dana’s portfolio.