Molding the Modern City

Molding the Modern City

By Leah King
Many of us have taken “professional development” courses, if only to keep up with the pre-teens already coding their own social network or cutting their first film. When it comes time to break free from basic HTML coding skills and transition towards the hip, multimedia style of HTML5, pleasant surprises are not usually found hidden within in the code. But courses at BAVC, San Francisco’s Bay Area Video Coalition, can lead to some thrilling discoveries—especially if the course is taught by SF-based photographer and installation artist, Liz Hickok.

During the second session of Liz’s digital photography course, she led the entire class on a field-trip to her studio. Sans brown bag lunches or haggard parental chaperones, we meandered unwittingly into her alluring space and—faster than the speed of…instant jello—we were transported to a vibrant world of color and light.

San Francisco Skyline, Liz Hickok

Her space is more than a studio. It is a prism reflecting a wide and varied spectrum of jewel-toned hues. A kaleidoscope of translucent colors glowed everywhere, from the tall, white walls to the candy-colored countertops. Just like kids in a bonbon shop, the class stood and ogled at the visual sensation of an incandescent display of Jell-O.

Yes, you read that correctly. Jell-O. But our visual enlightenment did not stop there.

With a graceful flick of a switch, Liz activated a string of LED lights and the transformation was complete. The field trip switched on, too…into an illuminating adventure through familiar cityscapes but as never seen before. Liz mesmerized the class with a start-to-finish demonstration of her unique process, creating in real-time her enchanting and gelatinous worlds. Do not pass by the chance to see her work in person. It is guaranteed to be…illuminating.

Alamo Square, Liz Hickok, 2004

What was the original inspiration to use the famed childhood dessert?I've always been excited by color and light, and when I started making cities, I knew I wanted the buildings to be translucent and jewel-like. I thought about using resin, but it's very toxic and difficult to work with. Jell-O just popped into my head as this wonderful alternative - a fragile and impermanent material, with all these associations with childhood memories, that's also incredibly beautiful when lit from below.

Palace of Fine Arts, Liz Hickok, 2006

What is the process you go through to create a building?I study photographs of the original building and decide which aspects of it I want to focus on. Then I create a model of the building from balsa wood or foam core, and I use silicone to cast a mold from that model. Once I have the silicone mold I can pour the Jell-O into it, and wait for it to set. I also incorporate tiny lights, backdrops that I paint, and miniature trees, kind of like a movie set. 

Creating Marina District sculpture, Liz Hickok

Tell us about the influence that architecture has had on you as an installation artist-creating skylines out of gelatinous materials –As an artistic child, people would always suggest that maybe I could be an architect when I grew up. It never quite stuck, but in school I did take a class in landscape architecture, which encouraged me to look more carefully at our surroundings and to consider how we are impacted by them.  As an artist I have always been interested in the unique personalities of our cities - to identify and figure out how to convey the aspects that aren't necessarily visible. Using Jell-O lets me experiment with color and light, but there's another aspect of it that has really resonated with architects I've talked to: we think of our cities as these permanent stable environments, but really they are changing all the time and can be very fragile and impermanent.  San Francisco (where I live) is a good example, being constantly under threat of a major earthquake. 

Bay Bridge, Liz Hickok, 2005

What is your favorite part of creating a landscape or building?My favorite part is when the scene is all built and I've set up the lights and my camera, and I look through the viewfinder - the edges of the room and the table disappear outside the frame of the picture, and the sculpture is transformed into an amazing imaginary space. It's a magical moment.

Marina District sculpture at Exploratorium, Liz Hickok, 2006

What are your current and upcoming exhibitions?I'm in a group show called Synthetic at Winston Wachter Fine Art in Seattle, which is on until September 2. And for one more week (through August 25th) I have a piece in a show called Chain Letter at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles.  I also have a new public art project that just went on display in San Francisco. It is a 400 foot x 8 foot tall photo-mural along a fence at the construction site for the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay (Mariposa St at 3rd St). It is very exciting to see giant human-sized Jell-O buildings up and down the street.  It will be on view for at least three years, while the hospital is being built.Lastly, what would be your dream iconic building or skyline to create?Probably Tokyo. I'd love the chance to live there and learn about the city. I could experiment with the Japanese jellied deserts that are so beautiful, and so different from our own. And I would have to figure out a way to have Godzilla eating the buildings! 

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