A traveler whose monumental inflatable sculptures have taken her around the world, Nicole Banowetz blows up microscopic rotifers and radiolaria into larger-than-life airborne monsters and forms, sharing them through residencies as close to home as the Children’s Museum of Denver and as far away as Ustka, Poland. A longtime member at Pirate: Contemporary Art, Banowetz also shows her activist side on the home front through the formation of Build Art and Make (the world you want), a local community-oriented art-in-action collective. Learn more about what drives Banowetz’s big works and big ideas from her answers to the 100CC questionnaire, which follow.
Joseph Beuys is someone I would love to meet. I love his work and his philosophy. I think his idea that teaching is the highest form of art is really important. I also think his ideas about social sculpture are very important. I really want the viewer to be engaged in artwork, whether they are physically interacting, learning or questioning. Beuys had a wonderful way of including the audience in his work and making meaningful social commentaries, but at the same time producing wonderful objects as artifacts to the action.
I also love his phrase “Show your wound.” He says, “And when I say ‘Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development,’ it’s because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.” I think that one thing that is important in my artistic process is exploring vulnerability and exposing weakness. This sort of shamanistic healing process that Beuys discusses in his work has always inspired me.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
When I was in a residency program in Russia in 2015, I met the artist Artúr van Balen. It was a really wonderful experience because he also makes inflatable sculptures. He was using the residency to research the history of inflatables used in the Soviet Union and how they were “used as symbols of production carried by workers of a particular profession, and to ridicule political opponents.” He was contrasting this with the more commercial use of inflatables in the U.S., such as in the Macy’s Day Parade.
His research helped him in the philosophy behind his art group, which uses inflatables for social change called Tools for Action. I was really captivated by the way he was taking the commercial and propaganda potential of the inflatable and flipping it to bring power to the people. With our current political situation in the U.S., I feel like it is a really important time as artists to try and use our crafts to make a statement. Artúr has inspired me to create my own collective here based on his model: BAAM — Build Art and Make (the world you want).
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
I really don’t know how to answer this one. I think there is a place for all kinds of expression in art. I can’t really say I want any kind of art to be excluded from existing.
It changes all the time. I split my time between fabricating, installing, designing and education. Right now, I am really lucky and have some interesting commissions that allow me to work on fabric art and inflatables, but I always enjoy teaching with Think 360. Right now, I have a really wonderful project working with students at McMeen Elementary. I am collaborating with the art teachers there to build an inflatable science-fiction utopia with their fifth-graders (more than 100 students). Each group of students is creating a piece of inflatable sculpture out of Mylar to add to our utopia. We have a lake of wisdom that can help you make the kindest decisions, a replication machine that provides endless resources and even a religion time machine that will take you back in time to learn the history of all religions so that we can be more educated and accepting.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
Space for artists and youth to make work. I think that space is the most important thing. How can artists realize their full potential if they don't have a large, inviting space to work in?
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
I like Denver. I was born in Colorado. and I have lived in Denver since I was in the third grade. I have spent a ton of time traveling and living in other countries, but I have never really settled anywhere other than Denver. When I was younger, I always wanted to leave Denver, but now I realize it’s a really great home base for me to be able to go away, travel and live abroad but know I have a great place to come back to.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Obviously, they could help keep spaces in the city affordable for galleries, studios, etc. Artists in Denver need to be really creative about finding studio space, and many of the galleries are moving out of Denver. I am a member of Pirate, and we are one of many co-op galleries that have been unable to survive the costs of Denver. Our landlords kept our rent way under market value for years so that we could stay in Denver, but it shouldn’t be the goodwill of individuals that keeps the arts in Denver. The city should recognize the value of artists and find ways to provide spaces for us to show and make our work.
I think there are so many important creatives in Colorado. I love Amber Cobb. She has always made work that I love, but I became her roommate a little over a year ago, and it’s been great to learn more about her and the work she is making. The way she addresses gender and femininity is really important.
I also am really inspired by Justin Beard. He always has such a thoughtful and unique outlook in his art and especially his art-making process. Another favorite is Viviane Le Courtois, whose work is so beautiful and thoughtfully engages the audience.
And I have to mention my mentor, Lonnie Hanzon, who has inspired my work style and my process for over ten years. The passion and layers of detail he puts into his work are truly fabulous, and his ability to delight a wide variety of audiences is brilliant. And if it weren’t for him, I probably would have never found my favorite form, the inflatable sculpture.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
I am going to be a participant in the Open Art Biennial in Orbero, Sweden. I travel there in June to install a series of large inflatable viruses and bacteria on a building facade. I am also finishing up an inflatable sculpture for a children’s museum in Taiwan. My show slot for Pirate is up in the air due to our move, but I will have a show there within a few months. I also just finished making a life-sized torch (approximately 29 feet tall), modeled off the torch from the Statue of Liberty, with the help of all the participants of BAAM. I hope we have a lot of opportunities to march with it this year!
I think that there are a lot of really interesting things happening in Colorado that will help Colorado artists get attention. I think that Black Cube does a lot of great work to bring international attention to Colorado artists. I am excited to see what Laura Shill and Joel Swanson will do at the Venice Biennale with Black Cube in May. And I also think that RedLine always has a lot of amazing shows to help its artists-in-residence get the attention they deserve.
See the utopian art installation created by McMeen School students with Nicole Banowetz from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at Venue 221, 221 Detroit Street in Cherry Creek North. Admission is free. Learn more about Nicole Banowetz and her inflatables online.