In a time when people are talking about tiny homes and tent communities for the homeless, Berlin-based artist Stephanie Imbeau’s work couldn’t be more relevant. Her inspiration is the idea of shelter and how we improvise and implement structures to provide it, leading to a deeper examination of self-protection in society. To do this, Imbeau uses cardboard boxes, bed sheets, wire structures, house models and imagery and, on a grander scale, umbrellas, to tell her stories.
Imbeau is bringing “Place/d,” a new series of monumental light installations comprising brightly lit umbrellas, to Breckenridge on May 31 through June 3 for the flashy international WAVE: Light + Water + Sound festival, which bathes scenic and historical sites in the mountain town with all manner of sensory experiences. Stacked willy-nilly into fragile large-scale sculptures, Imbeau’s umbrellas signify humanity’s need for ephemeral shelter in a storm: “They are broken but useful, torn up but beautiful,” she says.
The artist has been creating site-specific umbrella installations all over the world since 2009, when, fresh out of grad school, she answered a call from London’s Channel Four Television Corporation, which annually commissions one artist to transform the station’s iconic “Big 4” sculpture into a singular work of art.
The umbrella concept, Imbeau notes, grew out of her interest in how people chart out safe spaces for themselves within a community: “In my practice, my visual lexicon is in general about protective structures.” For the “Big 4” umbrella concept, Imbeau was “looking for something everyday, discarded. It’s a different aesthetic from the rest of my work, but conceptually on point with what I’m thinking about fragile forms of shelter.” It was a hit, and she’s since sent umbrella structures floating down a Baltimore waterway on sailboats and climbing the walls of a New York office building — and more — over the past nine years.
In a way, Imbeau finds the umbrella medium a refreshing change. “This work is about community-seeking and place-making: It’s much larger in scale than the rest of my work, in terms of the challenge and process,” she explains. “It’s also very labor-intensive, and I like that I engage with the community wherever I’m working, and have to do lots of problem-solving on site, using local help. That way I have a taste of the community where I'm working.
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“There are structural challenges unique to this, lots of light and color to manipulate,” she adds. “My other work is more muted. When I’m asked to explain how I can go from little quiet work to this big umbrella stuff, I say that they balance each other. Maybe I need these moments of umbrellas breathing out from me for a wider audience. Then I regroup with smaller works.
“There’s a rhythm that helps me keep balance. Maybe it’s a way for me to hold on to my color theory and paintings. As I moved away from 2-D art, I can still hold on to abstract decision-making — it’s a selfish way to keep that in play.”
Imbeau’s installation in Breckenridge will include several elements of what she calls “anchor spots” and “nuggets.” “One part of the installation goes over the bridge across the Blue River,” she says. “That’s one of the major anchor points — it will go up and over people’s heads and over the side of the river.” Other pieces will pop up by Breck’s Old Masonic Hall, the Tin Shop Gallery and the Robert Whyte House lawn. Will it be spectacular? “I bloody well think so!” she concludes.
See Imbeau’s “Place(d)” installations on Thursday, May 31, through Sunday, June 3, from 3 to 11 p.m. daily at the Breckenridge Riverwalk Center + Arts District and other downtown locations. Admission to this and other WAVE artworks is free. Learn more at the BreckCreate home page.