On a cold night at the end of January, a large auditorium at the University of Wyoming’s Visual Arts Center filled with students, educators, and interested community members to listen to visual artist Carol Prusa speak about her experiences with art and her view of the universe.
Prusa currently has an exhibition on display at the Centennial Complex on the University of Wyoming campus. Though she has dabbled in many different kinds of media, right now she makes hemispheres, painstakingly decorated with free-hand designs and accented with fiber optics and LED lights.
Her work is deeply thought provoking and contains a level of detail that only comes from a process that takes her many hours of careful, precise effort. But she did not come to this point by magic – the artistic journey that brought her here was a long one, filled with experimentation and self-discovery.
“Pushing the dirt around”: Prusa’s Journey
Carol Prusa grew up in Chicago and described herself as an “odd child”. She talked about how when she was a kid she used to close her eyes and try to figure out what was real by erasing things from her mind.
“How many things can I get rid of?” she would ask herself, starting with the house and slowly erasing things until all that was left was herself, inside her own mind.
She grew up wondering why things are the way they are. She was originally a scientist, and earned her B.S. in Biocommunication Arts from the University of Illinois. Next, she moved on to painting, and earned an M.F.A. from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
At Drake, her teacher was Jules Kirschenbaum, a man who challenged Prusa to explore more. This led to Prusa’s first artistic experiments. She did a piece that involved choreographed dancing while she, working around the dancers, constructed the stage out of cinder blocks, moving them constantly to change her message in time with the dance.
She described this kind of art as “push[ing] the dirt around until you see what you need to see.”
From there, she did a number of other unique artistic projects, including one where she created a quilt made of balls of human hair and a second where she drew on mattresses.
Another of her projects came about because of her children. Making breakfast for them every morning, she realized that she could use a similar block of time to make art – and so she challenged herself to make a new painting on a plate every day for a year. When a 6-year-old commented that it must have been a lot of work, Prusa replied that it was no more work than his mother did to make him breakfast every morning.
While she was experimenting and becoming familiar with different kinds of unique media and projects, she was also finding herself, discovering what directions she wanted to explore and what projects she wanted to do next. This eventually led to her work with domes.
“As artists and scientists seek to explain our place, I join the most advanced daydreamers… those who embrace indeterminacy and the fundamentally unstable boundaries between infinitesimal and immeasurable realms,” the artist statement on Prusa’s website states. She acknowledged that her life, too, has been unstable.
“I just turned my life into myth,” Prusa said. “There’s a lot of mess in between.” But these were only some of the things that helped her grow into the artist she is today. Her life, mess included, defined her thoughts on art, its creation, and its inspirations.
“Basically Our Guts”: Prusa’s art
“What interests me is basically our guts,” Prusa said during the talk, displaying photographs of her work, much of which does invite a comparison with our insides. To create these intricate, organic pieces, Prusa has developed a very specific process that leads to self-discovery as much as it does creation.
Eric Cameron, who attended the talk, admired Prusa’s process and dedication.
“There’s forethought. She looks at a piece and thinks, ‘there’s room for eight of these, or seven of these’. It’s not just ‘hey, look what happened’.”
But while Prusa does think a lot about her work before she makes it, her process isn’t as rigid as that sounds. Prusa explores complex ideas and abstract thoughts in her art, and so too does her process.
“We don’t have to look outside ourselves to understand who we are,” Prusa said. Art is simply a matter of “consuming your own self.”
Cameron thinks that she feels this way because she is looking for something very specific in her work. It’s not that her work lacks creativity or exploration, but that she has a process for discovering that creativity.
“Symmetry is more what she wants,” Cameron explained.
Prusa’s work, though sometimes inspired by science and math, does not lack imagination. She utilizes science and math because she thinks there is a certain kind of beauty to those subjects, but she emphasizes that her own work is art, not numbers.
“It’s not something I have to strategize. I have to make it to see it.” Instead of defining what she’s going to make beforehand, she views her process as “a conversation with the work”.
Prusa is also always looking for a new challenge, which is why she has changed both her medium and her style so many times in the course of her life.
“Whenever I feel like I know what I’m doing, I switch it up,” Prusa says. In this way, her art and her life never stagnate. She’s always working with some new material or new concept, and so she is always moving forward.
Sarah Maddy, another student who attended the art talk on January 31, found this part of Prusa’s talk especially interesting. She likened it to Benjamin Franklin’s attempts to reach perfection, knowing that it could never actually be reached.
“She wants to be challenged any time she thinks she might have mastered something,” Maddy went on to say.
Besides Prusa’s interest in “our guts” and as a part of her constant journey to challenge herself, she draws inspiration from many other sources, as well. This includes her background as a scientist, her degree in Biocommunication arts, and her affection for science fiction.
Between Science and Art: Carol Prusa’s “Emergent World”
The gallery that Prusa has on display at the Centennial Complex is called “Emergent Worlds”. This is a fitting name, as one of the driving inspirations for the exhibition and Prusa’s work with domes is the idea of multiple and alternate universes. Prusa is an avid reader of science and physics articles. She finds that scientists and physicists are artistic, and that their conjectures are often “beautiful”.
According to her website, Prusa’s hemispheres “are provocative symbols that invoke the idea of the universe and physical objects that allude to real-life structures. In my ‘canopies,’ I explore a number of mathematical models that physicists developed to explain our universe.”
Several times during the talk Carol Prusa brought up examples of science fiction that had inspired her. She talked about “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, referring specifically to the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy starts playing with his mashed potatoes. Like moving the dirt around, Prusa used this as an example of a way to explore the world through art.
Another piece of inspiration she brought up was that of the Borg Seven of Nine, a part-human, part-machine character on the television series “Star Trek: Voyager”.
“[In the series, Seven of Nine] plugs herself into a resuscitation unit. We all need that sometimes,” Prusa says. She used this idea as the inspiration for one of her domes.
While some students found the references to science and science fiction odd, Prusa believes science and art mesh together perfectly. She combines traditional artwork (painstakingly drawing the designs on her hemispheres with silver point) with modernity (not only does she utilize fiber optics to add lights to her pieces, but some, like this one, even include videos). Her work is a combination of the creativity of art and the precise exploration of science.
If you are interested in seeing her work, Carol Prusa’s exhibition “Emergent Worlds” is on display at the Centennial Complex at 2111 Willett Dr. in the University of Wyoming Art Museum until May 11, 2013.