There must be something about New Mexico’s wide open spaces and skies that made Alicia Piller’s art become increasingly expansive after she relocated here in 2013, moving from wearable art and hangable paintings to major, multi-layered installations.
So she was standing in her Santa Fe backyard a couple of weeks before the AHA Festival of Progressive Arts, mulling how she would move her project, “The Golden Cage,” to the Railyard for Sunday’s arts fair.
“We might have to lift it over the house,” she quipped. Or maybe move it in pieces. Or cut down some small trees by the gate.
However it happens, it will become part of the annual festival that, just like last year, will be held over three days in three different locations today through Sunday.
Piller will have one of 25 art booths set up Sunday, a festival day that also will include two stages of music, pop-up performances, vendors, food trucks and more.
Tonight’s event will be a concert by XIXA, a Tucson indie rock band, with local favorites Thieves & Gypsys opening the show at the Solana Center, 915 W. Alameda.
“The Art of the Machine” returns on Saturday, this time at the old Club Alegria, 2797 Agua Fria, where a tent-sized “The Wheel of Fortune” by Anne Staveley and Jill Sutherland will have doors opening to tea and Tarot card readings.
Also, Taos artist Christian Ristow’s “Fledgling,” a large, human-powered mechanical bird, will be joined by SCUBA’s “Ice Shelf” truck, Amy Westphal’s “Death Star,” Jess Webb’s sound-installation travel trailer, and performances by Wise Fool New Mexico and DJ Raashan Ahmad. Food trucks, and a beer and cider garden by New Mexico Hard Cider also will be set up.
Now in its sixth year, the festival was launched by the After Hours Alliance, a coalition of music and nightlife promoters.
Work speaks politics
Last year, Piller also contributed to an installation with other artists that was shown at the festival. She said the piece, which was based on “ocean energies,” but also included small boats as representations of migrant struggles, marked a transition for her to include more political statements in her work.
Previously, she said, she had resisted such expressions partly in reaction to the activism of her parents, particularly her father, a member of the Progressive Labor Party who spoke out against police brutality and for workers’ rights.
“I grew up in that environment,” she said. “It helped me develop a foundation, but also pushed me away.”
But an accident in Brooklyn, in which she was riding her bicycle around a corner and suffered a deep cut in her arm from sheet metal being unloaded from a truck, made her ponder her priorities. (If she hadn’t swerved at the last minute, the sharp edge might have taken her whole arm off or slit her throat, she added.)
When she first came to New York after earning a degree at Rutgers University in anthropology and fine art, she started her own business in 2005, selling hand-painted clothing on Manhattan streets. “I’d make $700 in a good week, $200 in a bad week,” she said.
That entrepreneurial bent had early seeds. When her father was going through medical school, she and her mother helped support the family by selling things at a flea market and being clowns – Piller’s clown name was “Glitter.”
“From when I was 7 to 14 years old, every weekend we were at somebody’s birthday party,” she said.
As a youth growing up on Chicago’s South Side, she also worked at Gallery 37, a project then in tents on an empty lot that paid young people to make art.
“I painted a bench for (glass artist) Chihuly once,” she said.
While in New York, she also spent three years working as a jewelry designer for a company that sold her designs in places such as Macy’s, and Lord and Taylor. She also has made her own jewelry and wearable art through her business, Designs by Alicia.
One day, she saw a photo in W Magazine of singer Ciara wearing one of her pieces, which she had made for another friend who had died, and the wearable art apparently ended up in a vintage shop in Los Angeles, and eventually in Ciara’s hands, Piller said.
“I had to fight to get credit for it,” she added.
Piller, who also works as a gallery and public programs coordinator at the Center for Contemporary Arts, often recycles objects and materials into her works. A bright green material that turns up in some of her pieces is made from a green screen used in filming, where actors – or weather forecasters – stand in front of a blank green background, where maps or computer effects or more can be added.
But one material she does buy is leather. “I love leather!” Piller enthused.
“The Golden Cage” had its start with her effort to make a face completely from that material. “I started with the eyes and let it happen,” said Piller, adding that she rarely starts such a work with a plan, but just lets it evolve.
She suspended the head, backed by rows of old tape measures, in a cage of plastic tubing, with a backdrop featuring newspaper headlines of some of the tragic events of this year, along with disposable plastic bottles and more. “I took collecting garbage to another level,” she said.
Since she likes to include international materials in her works, she was able to get photos of artworks that applicants submitted to the International Folk Art Market and cut them into strips that curl throughout the backdrop.
“He was telling me his story,” she said of the head, which, made of beautiful minerals and things of the earth, she calls a “prince.”
Piller said the piece emerged from her reaction to returning to the United States after an arts residency in India last year.
“I think I had culture shock,” she said. “There is so much here, so many resources in general, but what are we doing with it? Our ideals are a little skewed, but we’ve been given all this stuff … .
“What are we doing? We live on this beautiful planet, with so many resources, but there’s so much waste – and wasted intelligence.”