For an artist, scale matters. The size of a painter’s canvas can be as small as a postage stamp or as big as the wall of a room. But A&D professor Jim Cogswell’s recent work for the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital may be the first time that a painter has been asked to use an 8-story window façade as a canvas.
Jim Cogswell and Melanie Manos
The idea to ask Jim to create a site-specific work on the windows of the new hospital came from Melanie Manos (MFA ’09). Along with her boss, Kathy Ballew, Melanie was in charge of curating a $1.6 million museum-quality art collection for the hospital.
Melanie had seen Cogswell’s experiments with window vinyl at the WORK • Detroit gallery and wondered what it would look like on a massive scale at Mott.
The collection would feature artists with a Michigan connection of some kind. About 19 A&D alumni and faculty have work in the new space.
Michele Oka Doner, a Michigan alum, was commissioned to create a bronze fossil terrazzo floor installation in the two-story sky-lit main lobby. Click for larger version.
Cogswell, along with Larry Cressman and Michele Oka Doner, were among the artists who were asked to create site-specific installations for the hospital. Check out a slideshow of some of the work here.
Jim’s assignment was perhaps the most complex of all the installation projects. It took over two years to plan and execute, required $150,000 worth of vinyl, covers 11,000 square feet of glass, and took 6 months just to install.
Now that this mammoth task is completed, Jim is prepared to reveal the story behind ‘the making of.’ He describes the process as a series of artistic challenges. Some challenges came with the assignment itself but, since Jim enjoys complexity, some were self-imposed.
Step through each of the galleries below in order to see Jim's process.
Jim’s composition would be shaped by architectural details - the window views, the placement of the elevators, waiting room areas, pillars, etc - but because the building was not built yet, he had to imagine his design using only architectural blueprints.
It was a massive composition to take on—spanning eight floors and running across 33 windows on each floor, each 8 foot by 62 inches.
Another compositional challenge was meeting the demands of multiple viewpoints. Inside, viewers would encounter the composition floor by floor, as a sequence along the corridors.
Outside, the composition could be seen as a whole, but only from a considerable distance. (The outside view is best seen at night.)
For durability, the visual elements of Jim’s design needed to be made from vinyl. Vinyl only comes in monochromatic colors. So in order not to limit his design, Jim would need to be inventive with the material.
In order to create multi-colored shapes and patterns, Jim first experimented in his studio with pieces of shelf paper left over from another shape-based sequential painting.
These colored patterns and images would eventually be meticulously recreated with individual pieces of vinyl.
Most professional vinyl cutters make simple monochromatic signs for businesses. Luckily, Jim eventually found a family-owned shop – ImageCrafters Incorporated
– that was crazy enough to take on the laborious project. Here, Dave Michalak ‘weeds’ the vinyl ‘vines’ after it’s been cut.
Furthermore, Jim’s contract actually stipulated that no more than 30% of each window could be covered.
This meant the composition had to be open and transparent enough not to block the light or the views.
In other words, his challenge as a painter was to create imagery using mostly negative space.
The final price for the vinyl and the cutting was close to $150,000. It took Jim and an assistant six months to install the vinyl over each of the 660 window panes on the building.
Jim began the organizational process in his studio, working with the theme of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In order to coordinate work with the vinyl cutters, Jim needed a digital layout of all the windows of the building. He created this file in Adobe Illustrator.
With the help of assistants Jim scanned in each of his compositions and began mapping out each of the 660 frames of his composition.
Each window pane would need to be carefully coded and sent to ImageCrafters for cutting and reassembling.
In order not to be confined by the shape of the window panes, Jim ran the image sequences across the mullion.
The result was a mysterious illusion around the picture plane. Where does the painting sit? Is it behind the window or is it floating in the sky? Or…?
Jim also developed this creeping vine motif (or ‘beanstalk’) which climbs through all 8 floors and unifies the composition.
The vines create the sensation of being in nature, tucked away in a secret leafy grove.
He developed a different visual motif for each floor, representing layers of magical reality. Fantastical characters appear and reappear down the corridors.
Level 7, the floor where things fly...
A single ‘bean’ appears on each floor as if dropping from the sky. (Top middle pane.)
The bean, now on Level 7. (Bottom right pane.)
Jim paid special attention to those windows facing the waiting rooms where children and their families would be able to investigate the images over time.
The compositions constantly change with the light and the seasonal views from the window.
The direction of the sun alters the visibility and color of the shapes. Some days an alternate “painting” is created by the shadows on the wall.
Each floor sequence begins with a count on the upper left corner. 7 ‘clouds’ for Level 7.
You can spend a lot of time with this piece. Jim’s installation is, everywhere, packed with clues, references and open-ended story lines for careful viewers to discover and imagine.
Jim’s work is just one of the over 260 works in the hospital. Here’s one place where you’ll actually hope the doctor is running behind schedule.