Arts : The roads most traveled

Ethel Shipton talks about meaning and direction in a world of man-made paths

“This city lets you play hard,” Ethel Shipton likes to tell recent transplants to San Antonio. You can try, fail, try again, go out on a limb everyone warned you five times was gonna break, and people will still turn up for your shows, attend your openings, come to your birthday party.

Artist Ethel Shipton hit the Artpace trifecta this year. She recently completed a project with students in Fox Tech High School’s Artpace program, and was awarded an Artpace Travel Grant. Tomorrow her Artpace Window Works installation opens.

It’s a city, in short, that will provide a soft landing when you do fall, and Shipton is no small part of that community ethos. Her and husband Nate Cassie’s Government Hill home is an emotional and physical ground zero for many of their peers. I ask if they’re going to turn their back house into a residency program. Shipton laughs and says, “We already have one.” The master bath is currently commandeered by the latest in what seems like an endless parade of houseguests, this time an artist and former neighbor who moved to New York last year, but keeps a local studio.

Maybe because she is a nexus, Shipton has been working for the past couple of years on a series inspired by pathways, highway systems in particular. The new work is intentionally drained of color, and apart from the thread of motion, couldn’t feel more different than her recent series of bright, padded, vinyl-covered skateboards and ramps. Shipton’s Window Works installation, “Where Are We Going?,” featuring large-scale drawings, opens tomorrow at 445 N. Main, and at a second location on Houston Street. Later this year, she’ll travel to Mexico with funds from the Artpace Travel Grants program to explore creating porcelain sculptures from her illustrations.

The words “Where Are We Going?” — has that phrase been in your mind since you began work on this series?

Well, this really started when I started thinking about gateways, pathways, and connections. I actually started looking at circuitry, electrical drawings, and things like that. Maybe even thinking about it as contained in one space, like a house, so you can see how that goes. And then when thinking that way, you think about architecture and the layout of a building. And just looking at the yard — I have a dog -looking at the paths that are automatically `traveled`.

Then we got a chance last year to visit the Dia piece in New Mexico, the lightning fields. Well, that’s a real interesting piece because it’s a grid, and it spans a couple of acres. It’s in nature, but the only real footprints that you see, or that are visible right away, are people’s. And because it’s a grid and it’s man-made, you couldn’t really zigzag through it; it couldn’t be random; it couldn’t be organic; it couldn’t be any of those things that it sat in the middle of.

That kind of reinforced my thinking of how we move, and then I started with making small-scale bridges, these connectors, and the word “gateway.” Then I realized these paths in the yard were more organic, and I went to this large-scale public art piece, and then it was back to the grid, the city, then I started being fascinated by — and I don’t even call them highways anymore, I call them highway-scapes, because they are landscapes in themselves, even thought there’s nothing organic about them.

And they really come to dominate...

The landscape, yeah.

We live in a city where a lot of the main roads were established fairly organically from old cattle trails. If you look at the city from above, it’s sort of like this big wheel with crooked spokes. Then you go to these cities that are master-planned with a grid so that it’s easier to get around. But you don’t necessarily think that’s a virtue.

I don’t really think about it in a large-scale sense. If you’re going to take pictures of beautiful countryside, it’s almost like that. And of course we have so much construction around here and to watch them be constructed, it’s like, wow, you know they pour those columns. It’s very physical and it’s certainly man-made, but it’s not very technical, it’s pretty straightforward. It is engineered, of course, perfectly, but the way it’s put together you just think, oh, it’s not any different from pouring a sidewalk, really.

Window Works:
Where Are We Going?

Jun 15-Sep 10

445 N. Main

And then also the idea that there’s all these highways and they start getting higher and higher and higher, and suddenly you have the idea of a mesa, but it’s a man-made mesa, and technically there’s real estate in the sky. So, that’s owned, or is a financial variable because you have to have commerce go one way or the other, ’cause that’s why roads were made, anyway. For instance, the way railroad tracks evolved ... what if you owned a section? And people do; there are tollbooths, bridges you have to pay to use. And you have to sell your land to let somebody do this. Those are private lands that have become public.

Through eminent domain a lot of times. It seems to me they care more about the aesthetics nowadays, some of the new construction of highways is more aesthetically pleasing.

Well, I think that’s true; it gets to be more and more about design than just trying to get from one place to another more easily. If you go to Austin the details in the columns and stuff have stars on them; down here a lot of them have the Alamo image. They’re branded in a way to the ownership. It’s a funky idea.

And it does give you a lot of power ...

Well, highways as a loan. We’re a big city, we have so many highways; they’re very easy to get around, and that’s where I guess “Where Are We Going?” `comes from.` Easy to get around to where? And then of course it gets to be a larger metaphor for the political atmosphere or the emotional atmosphere. Psychologically, where are we going?


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