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Since its inception in 1967, Art in the Parks has fostered a wide array of styles, forms, materials, and ideas in art for New York City’s recreational spaces. The program has also given emerging artists an opportunity to bypass the art market and reach audiences they typically may not have access to. One artist who has benefitted from this institution, while simultaneously rewriting its rules of engagement, is Daniele Frazier.
As a Parks Department employee stationed at Forest Park in Queens, I first met Frazier at the opening reception for her 2019 solo exhibition, “Small, Medium, Large.” Hosted at Oak Ridge, a turn-of-the-century golf clubhouse which now serves as the headquarters for the Forest and Highland Park Administration and The Forest Park Trust, the show featured artifacts and ephemera related to the various public works Frazier has produced (and plans to produce) in Highland Park, Forest Park’s neighbor along the Brooklyn–Queens border. In 2016, Frazier installed Highland Park’s first-ever piece of public art, the start of a unique and ongoing relationship with this particular landscape, its administrators and caretakers, and its surrounding community. Frazier’s second large-scale, site-specific work, on view in Highland Park through March 20, 2020, cements her status as something of an artist-in-residence gone native: Formerly based in Bushwick, the artist relocated three blocks away from the installation in order to better maintain the work and serve as its “ambassador” to the public. I caught up with Frazier to untangle some of the conceptual roots and practical challenges running through and around her site-committed art practice. – CV
Why did you propose Ecology Sampler for the Art in the Parks program? How or why did you choose Highland Park as its site?
Ecology Sampler was my second artwork in Highland Park. My first piece was The Giant Flowers. In New York City, public art can’t be installed for more than a year, and Giant Flowers was in an actual public space, as opposed to a privately owned plaza that seems public. The project consisted of five 20-foot-tall flagpoles, anchored into the ground, with windsocks resembling flowers on top of each pole. Approaching the one-year mark, I was anticipating having to deinstall it, and how difficult that might be. What am I going to do with all these 20-foot-tall flagpoles? I thought I would propose a second piece for the park that used at least part of the prior artwork. It was approved in time, so I removed four flagpoles, and left one for Ecology Sampler.
I had become much more deeply acquainted with the ecology of Highland Park. So for Ecology Sampler, I proposed this six-by-ten foot flag subdivided into a three-by-five square grid. In each square of the grid is a different living thing that a parkgoer could encounter. It’s flanked by smaller flags, or pennants, and each one of those has silhouettes of trees that currently grow in the park.
People use flags to mark ownership of a place, to signify borders. They take a flag and stick it in the ground and say, “This is mine.” But flags also contain symbols. Ecology Sampler is a flag full of symbols that relate to this one specific place. Highland Park and the Ridgewood Reservoir are on the Atlantic Flyway, and because there’s this big body of water, during migratory season, 150 additional species of birds come through. You could be at a park not far away and not see any of those birds. This flag could really only work in Highland Park.
So it’s a reflection of its surroundings.
Yes, and it’s called a “sampler” because in quilting or sewing terminology, a person who makes quilts will create what’s called a sampler that serves as an example of a what a bigger version of each individual design might be. This is just a small sampling of what’s in the park. The signage that accompanies it has a key identifying each of the plants and animals depicted, so people walking by can recognize something they might have seen before and find its corresponding common and Latin names — for the blue jay, for instance, or the great blue heron, or mute swan.
How did The Giant Flowers come to be?
It all started with Socrates Sculpture Park’s Emerging Artists Fellowship program. It’s a really unique program because they offer artists funding, technical assistance, and studio space. It’s a great entry-level experience in public art, and I absolutely fell in love with working on that scale and being outdoors. I started applying to all the open calls through the Art in the Parks program, and received a lot of rejections. Eventually, I was a finalist for the Uniqlo Parks Expressions Grant, but I didn’t get it. However, I did receive a personal letter from Jennifer Lantzas, Deputy Director of Public Art for NYC Parks’ Art and Antiquities Division, saying, “We can’t offer you the money from Uniqlo, however we really liked your proposal. If you’d like to get back to us, we’re here.”
Originally, I had proposed The Giant Flowers for Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, alongside the Unisphere and other large structures there. I was thinking really big. But Jennifer said, “We really prefer, and artists have the greatest success on many levels, if they participate within their own community.” At this point I was living on Bushwick Avenue, but I had been to Highland Park a bunch. I had visited it before their renovation of the reservoir area, and after, and just fell in love with that area. Although it wasn’t right in my backyard, it felt like it was my park. That was my first choice, and they had never had public art there before, so it seemed to just click.
When you’re making a public art piece through Art in the Parks, you have to figure out how to install it on your own. There are no helpers for you. You have to pay for everything yourself, and I wanted to start with something that I felt would be successful, and not too difficult. Park administrators also prefer that you’re relatively non-invasive, meaning not making giant holes in the grass. You have to remove the work a year later, and they don’t want a dead zone. Flagpoles seemed to be a proven way to work around this. The pole itself is basically a kit you can order. So I started researching windsocks and making prototypes. “How much can I alter the form of a windsock and still have it be functional? Can I put these big petals on the side of it? Will the wind still inflate it?” I made five different designs, five different flowers. I felt like it was important to have it be recognizable to the public, as opposed to abstract.
When I imagine an artist making something for the public, I also think about the process of negotiation — in the sense of ensuring legibility or widening the scope of potential engagement.
I think there are different approaches you can take. There are artists who might say, “I don’t make a single compromise, I shouldn’t have to.” That’s one stance. I see compromise as a challenge, and I’m just the kind of person who says, “I want to make something. I’m happy to change my work in order to create something that speaks to the site.” Which, in this case, was a site that had never had artwork before. It just didn’t feel like it would make sense for something really indecipherable to be plopped into the park.
And this park is primarily used by kids. The piece is situated near the tennis courts, closest to the children’s tennis court, and the fountain area. It is full of families and kids, especially in the spring and summer. I’ve always been attracted to the history of projects and pieces that artists have made with kids in mind, from Charles and Ray Eames’ toy designs to Isamu Noguchi’s playgrounds. I think just because something is made for kids, it’s by no means a compromise. It’s an interesting experiment in simplicity.
Describe your relationship to the Forest and Highland Park Administration’s staff. How has it evolved over time?
One of the other requirements of the Art in the Parks program is that you host at least one community workshop near your piece, which gives the artist an opportunity to act as an ambassador for the artwork and introduce it to the community.
That first workshop was really successful, so the Forest and Highland Park Administration hired me last summer to lead five art workshops that were related to the themes of Ecology Sampler. I had kids make flags that included symbols of themselves. That led to the exhibition at Oak Ridge called “Small, Medium, Large.” So now I have this really direct relationship with the Forest Park Trust, who has offered me funding and who has been incredibly supportive of my involvement in the park.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility for the work you’ve installed at Highland Park?
I’m legally responsible for not injuring someone with my work. But as a sculptor, I believe it is absolutely my responsibility to design something safe for the public. You might think people aren’t going to climb on it because it looks so beautiful, but the first thing that happens is a dog pees on it, and someone tries to shimmy up the pole, and then there’s a hurricane . . . All the things happen. That’s what led me to move to the neighborhood. I’m literally three blocks away. I go check on it every day. I’m not checking on it to make sure there’s no graffiti or anything, but I just want to make sure it’s in the best shape it can be.
One of my jobs with the Forest and Highland Park Administration has been working on both established trails and identifying “desire lines.” There are the official Yellow Trail or Red Trail or Blue Trail, but also many divergences: shortcuts, or a consensus by the public on which way is the better route. I feel like the desire line is a metaphor that connects the work that we both do in the park.
Artists will try to look at historical precedents for things they’re trying to do, career-wise, and emulate aspects of those. And sometimes you have to forge your own path. For example, when I started with my first piece at Socrates Sculpture Park, I had also applied to graduate school and been accepted. I had to choose between two opportunities: I couldn’t do both simultaneously. I think of grad school as a very hard-trodden, preexisting career path. With public art, I couldn’t really see what was at the end of the path or if that was even a path, or if it was a detour. But that started it. It’s a real path for me. I cannot foresee a future where I’m not working with parks.
All images by Daniele Frazier.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.