Visual Arts

Nicole Banowetz’s Inflatable Sculptures Pop Up at the Children’s Museum

You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

“I grew up around Denver,” says sculptor Nicole Banowetz, who was born in Fort Collins, moved to New York during toddlerhood and was in third grade when she landed in Denver. “I lived in Cap Hill until sixth grade, and then in northwest Denver through high school; I’ve always been based in Denver, but I’ve also traveled.” 

She isn’t kidding about having traveled: Banowetz says she’s “lived, worked and produced art in Ireland, England, Italy, India, Nepal, Germany, Poland and Russia.”

Her travels started after Banowetz graduated from Colorado State University, where she studied sculpture. And while most of her classes may have been focused on more traditional forms of sculpture, her art now takes a few twists.  

“Most of the work I do now is sewn sculpture,” Banowetz explains.  Her signature is sewn, inflatable sculptures and assembled forms; she honed her sewing skills while working with Jayne Harnett-Hargrove and Lonnie Hanzon at the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood. 

“My main inspiration comes from the natural world,” Banowetz says. “My artwork addresses vulnerability and struggle. My forms move freely between growth and decay, blurring the distinction between decoration and disease.”

That’s the art-statement answer, anyway. “When I’m just talking with people, I always say I make large fabric sculptures that inflate like a balloon with forced air,” Banowetz explains.

Once she finds something in nature that inspires her,  she’ll start by sketching the forms she wants to create. “Then I begin to draft paper patterns by breaking the three-dimensional form down into two-dimensional planes,” she says.  Her pieces are “sewn on a sewing machine," she adds, "and are usually all-white and based on imagery from nature.” 

“From these paper patterns, I cut pieces of Oxford, a plastic-coated fabric," she continues. "I sew these together on a household sewing machine and attach them to a forced air blower.” It typically takes quite a few inflatable components to create one installation, and she often takes two to six months to build a single piece. Banowetz also makes slip-cast porcelain pieces, which she’ll occasionally sew onto or otherwise incorporate into an inflatable work.

Her biggest ideas sometimes come from very small things. Banowetz has made sculptures inspired by microscopic fungus, bacteria, viruses and crustaceans, for example. “My current obsession is rotifers, these tiny, fascinating creatures that defy all scientific explanation,” she says. They’re the inspiration for the art Banowetz will produce during her residency at the Children's Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus.
The Children’s Museum launched its Artist-in-Residence program this year, starting with artist Jaime Molina’s three-month residency. Banowetz is the second artist to participate.

“The program came about as we were doing the museum’s expansion, because we wanted a way to connect children to the Colorado artist community,” explains Rachael Fischer, marketing coordinator at the Children's Museum, adding that the program “aspires to show that art can be anything — that it’s not constricted to one medium.”

The idea was to showcase the variety of art produced in Colorado, and Banowetz’s inflatable sculptures certainly do that. “Right now I’m telling guests at the Children’s Museum all about [rotifers], and then having the children draw their own versions of the tiny creatures," says the artist. Drawings of rotifers have slowly begun to fill the Artist-in-Residence Studio and are influencing the forms that Banowetz will create for the museum. At the end of her tenure, she'll leave one of her pieces with the museum.

“I hadn’t visited the Children’s Museum since I was a child, but I loved the idea of working in a space with children,” Banowetz says. She isn’t a stranger to teaching: Banowetz has assisted in summer art camps for kids, she mentored young people through Arts Street, and she’s currently a teaching artist with ArtReach and Think 360 Arts. “I’ve always felt art is a necessary subject for children; it teaches problem-solving and physical skills, which empower young people,” she says.

Banowetz shows work in galleries and at events and pop-up shows, and she even did a piece for a friend’s party once, creating a crashed air balloon that guests could climb into. “My work doesn’t exactly fit in coffee shops,” she says, noting that the pieces are too large, and the blowers are too noisy.

But the artist’s pieces definitely work well outdoors, and Banowetz has shown at Burns Park as part of the Burns Park Temporary Sculpture Celebration. “In Russia I showed pieces outside in the small town of Kronstadt,” she adds. “I also make inflatables as a part of Hanzon Studios for the Houston Zoo and its annual zoo lights event.”  

Banowetz is currently working on a project for a light festival in Europe, as well as other pieces. “I will be showing in the lobby of GOCA in Colorado Springs for their Brilliant event, and I’m discussing showing work in the gallery of the Art Gym later this summer,” she says. Her piece for the Children’s Museum will be installed in late June and unveiled this July.

You don’t have to wait until the unveiling to see Banowetz’s Children's Museum work, though. As part of her residency, the sculptor is holding studio hours from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.  And from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18, Banowetz will host a special workshop at her museum studio with what she promises will be “some really cute, compelling visuals,” as children design their own inflatable sculptures from plastic bags.
For more information on Banowetz, visit her website or Facebook page.  Find out more about the Artist-in-Residence program on the Children's Museum of Denver website.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase