Celebrating the natural, artificially


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Imagine a tree growing up through the center of an office building. Its branches protrude into the cubicles of the diligent staff typing away at their computers. The roots at the base of the trunk spread throughout the ground floor.

This is the effect Crystal Wagner tries to create with her installation art, except instead of planting a tree inside a building, she uses chicken wire and plastic tablecloths. 

Wagner, while also skilled in drawing and printmaking, is perhaps best known for her installations. Words such as vibrant, exotic, and otherworldly have all been used to describe them. They are essentially giant sculptures with a base of chicken wire that hold its shape with materials such as plastic tablecloths, office paper, and caution tape stuffed inside the wire.

These materials come together to create a massive body that intrudes on the manmade building it resides in. They look unlike anything in the natural world but are meant to eerily evoke the emotions felt when beholding a great natural beauty, such as a waterfall or redwood forest.

Her installations are known for their scale. At Georgetown College in Kentucky, her installation is 15 feet tall and 55-by-25-feet wide with a cave inside it. 

Wagner equates her work to bringing a plastic plant into the workplace or home. She said its intension is to use synthetic material to remind the owner of the outside world.

“I make extremely large plastic plants,” she said.  “If we really want a plastic plant to do what we want it to do, it has to be much bigger, and it has to have more texture.”

Wagner will present a lecture at 8 p.m. today in 116 Art Building West. She said among many topics she will touch on will be her growth as an artist and her artistic process.

Wagner said she will encourage students to draw every day. Her assistant, Dovie Chamma, said drawing is instrumental in Wagner’s process.

“She has a deep understanding and a deep love for drawing,” Chamma said. “I get to watch these drawings grow from a sketch in a book to a beautiful massive object on a wall.”

Chamma said she also hopes students pick up on Wagner’s love for what she does and apply that to their own work.

“It’s contagious being around somebody who loves her job and loves what she does, and it makes you want to love what you’re doing,” she said.

Wagner said in addition to trying to evoke the emotion one feels when standing before a natural wonder with her work, she is also attempting to make a commentary on the growing comfort level people feel with plastic and other artificial materials and how unfamiliar they are with the natural world.

“There is criticism of it because I think it’s a real problem that we don’t have a connection to [nature] but people want to reach out to it,” she said. “People are nostalgic for that natural world, and I think that’s why the installations appeal to them.”

Scotty Hensler, assistant director of landmark arts at Texas Tech University, worked with Wagner when she constructed an installation at that school of art. He said he can definitely recognize this aspect of her art.

“When you first walk up to the finished work, I think because of the scale, organic forms and the vibrant color that are in it, it does seem otherworldly,” he said. “There is a beautifulness to it, and there’s also an uneasiness to knowing these are synthetic, manmade materials.”

Artist Crystal Wagner Lecture
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: 116 Art Building West
Admission: Free

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