Behind a black curtain, a shaft of light fell from a vent in the eaves of the South Fork Natural History Museum barn, dimly illuminating video equipment and stacks of twigs and branches. To eyes grasping for a way to make sense of the space, it was a welcome sight. To Christine Sciulli, however, it was a challenge.
“The Expansive Field: The Environmental Art of Christine Sciulli” will open this weekend on the grounds of the museum, known informally as SoFo, as part of an Earth Day celebration on Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. The centerpiece of the show, an indoor installation where geometric light projections interact with organic material in an immersive experience, is dependent on near to total darkness to fully engage with it.
SoFo didn’t have an extension ladder, but this being Bridgehampton, a few phone calls found a neighbor willing to lend one, in this case, Topping Rose House just down the turnpike. Ladder retrieved, the SoFo grounds crew tacked black fabric on the outside of the vent. It was not an ideal solution, but it would give Ms. Sciulli the darkness she needed until a more elegant approach was possible. “I love the look of the barn and don’t want anything to interfere with it.” She said she hoped to have the fabric tacked up inside instead so that it is not visible from the exterior.
Ms. Sciulli is SoFo’s first artist in residence. In her office on Thursday, Carol Crasson, the museum’s education and communications director, said establishing such a program was her intention from the inception of SoFo. “I always wanted to have an artist in residence,” she said in her office on Thursday. “It’s how I got into natural history, through drawing and organic form. That is what always has interested me.”
The mission of SoFo’s founders, who began the organization in 1989, was to engage the public in their own emotional response to the natural world and they have built the organization’s programs around that model. “We know that no adult will run over a turtle if they have had a personal experience with that animal,” Ms. Crasson said. Art was another way they envisioned connecting people to nature.
But it wasn’t until Ms. Crasson and SoFo’s director, Frank Quevado, saw Ms. Sciulli’s work that the idea really caught fire. “I thought it was just magical, but so layered and there were so many lessons that could be taken away from her work. It seemed perfect that she be the first artist in residence,” Ms. Crasson said.
The two discovered each other inadvertently. Ms. Sciulli signed up too late for a walk in the Andy Warhol Preserve. Ms. Crasson found Ms. Sciulli’s Web site while writing her a note to say she was sorry she was not able to make it. “I saw this work that combines so beautifully art, mathematics, natural materials, and an insight into something much larger than its individual parts.”
She only began work at the site on April 8, when the barn became ready and still had a lot to do last Thursday to realize her vision for Saturday. She was devising ways for kids to interact with her work, including building their own structures out of brush, branches, and trimmings down by the pond or near the barn and then projecting light onto them after dark. She wants to have friends come and contribute across disciplines, a poet for the outdoors and a singer for the installation, where the light waves could react to the sound waves in her voice. And that is just for Saturday.
Her longer-term vision for the residency, which lasts through Memorial Day, is to have more musicians perform and workshops with different schools tied to their math curriculum, rather than their art. After the Sag Harbor School’s math fair on May 1, she has proposed an open studio at which students can learn about geometry through her light projections by seeing it move through three dimensions, “how a line in space is a flat plane and how they intersect to get dots and points. A lot of it is elementary, but I’m sick of people saying they don’t like math and I’m trying to help make it interesting.” She has discussed the idea of bringing Ross School students with the head of the school’s math department. “It’s an open studio, not a static exhibition. I really want to engage people in a dialogue.”
“I’m calling the project ‘The Expanding Field,’ as a note to myself to push the boundaries of what I’m doing. Once you get locked into what you like doing, you stop taking chances.” Instead, she is figuring out ways to bring elements of her dark interior world out into the daylight, which she finds both terrifying and invigorating.
She has already erected an upside down privet structure, shaped not unlike an unwrapped teepee near the barn, something for the children to enter or use as inspiration for their own structures. She once taught art to children and misses the interaction. “I don’t know where this will go, but I like to be with people and have them see stuff in progress. People think you get an idea and that’s it, that’s the piece. It’s nice to know that incidental things happen along the way, experimental structures, that have nothing to do with the finished work. Part of it is about playing, I think.”
Ms. Sciulli has spent much of her career in New York City, but recently she and her husband, Carter Burwell, decided to raise their family of three young children full-time in Amagansett. Although she found the transition relatively easy, there is a tension between the strictures of being a “serious artist” in New York art world terms and embracing a more relaxed approach to style and substance that befits the East End environment and is necessary for this assignment.
“I felt very self-conscious making that structure out there. I thought ‘if my 20-year-old self could see me. . . .’ But there is something liberating about not being so precious about what you are doing, even if you are constantly aware of the cultural critique.”
After the residency, Ms. Sciulli’s work will be seen in Denmark, where she will be part of a group show of site-specific installations in the town of Fjellerup in July. She will take over an old ice barn not unlike the one here. She is also one of five finalists for her proposal to transform a city block in Philadelphia, where one of the first net-zero community complexes (that will produce as much energy as it uses) has been built.