Published July 22, 2020
UB professor and transdisciplinary artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant’s high-concept, large-scale exhibits are known for getting people talking.
Her latest project, bound for two lakeside locations in Erie, Pennsylvania, is bound to get people listening, as well.
O’Leary Soudant, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Art, College of Arts and Sciences, is one of seven artists selected by Erie Arts & Culture to be partnered with less-established Erie-area artisans to create works for the Creating with Community Artist Residency Program. The project was designed to empower local artists from underrepresented backgrounds, and to create opportunities for them to engage in more ambitious projects.
EAC paired O’Leary Soudant with Esther Ortiz, an Erie-based pinata maker. Ortiz’s work is sculptural in nature and she has “a tremendous grasp on proportion and color theory,” said Patrick Fisher, executive director of EAC. “Shasti's work is playful in nature, as is Esther’s, so it felt like the two would be a great pairing.”
O’Leary and Ortiz’s concept is to create two pairs of sculptural “whisper dishes,” like those first used in Europe during World War I. Whisper dishes are large, parabolic, acoustic listening devices that collect sound at a focal point and project it to another dish some distance away. The artists’ sculptures will allow people to speak in normal tones into one dish and be heard by someone at another dish more than 50 feet away.
“The concept arose from community meetings we were able to participate in before COVID, which brought to the fore the importance of underrepresented viewpoints being clearly heard, which is especially important at this juncture,” O’Leary Soudant said. “They also have a socially-distanced payoff, which is bizarrely fortuitous.”
At two community meetings in February, O’Leary Soudant said, community members were seated in a circle, so no one felt relegated to the back of the room.
“It made me really understand the value of being given room to speak,” she said. “It was great to see the audience’s reaction to be listened to, to being heard.
“I came away profoundly affected as a white person. Those are the three tenets of being human – to be seen, to be able to speak and to be listened to.”
O’Leary and Ortiz were both deeply impacted. “It posed the question: How to create the opportunity for people to be heard,” O’Leary Soudant said.
Thus, the concept of the whisper dishes was born.
The collaboration has been successful because the two women have chemistry that is “off the charts.”
“Both women have a strong sense of humor, a playful disposition and a focus on serving the community,” Fisher said. “Shasti is very animated and outgoing, while Esther is a little more reserved. But both are incredibly creative and talented, as well as resourceful.”
While O’Leary Soudant works mostly with sheet metal and Ortiz with cardboard and crepe paper, there are similarities between the two mediums. “Sheet metal is forgiving and challenging and fun,” O’Leary Soudant said. “It has a correlative relationship to paper. The two sensibilities dovetail.”
“Shasti is incredibly talented,” Ortiz said. “The way she can listen to a community and use art to represent their voices is impressive. I was over the moon to know I would be working with someone I consider a role model.”
O’Leary Soudant said she was fascinated to learn the history of the pinata, and praised her Pennsylvania partner’s brilliance as a pinata maker.
“Pinatas are all about celebration, but they have a history,” O’Leary Soudant said. “In the seven-point star of the traditional pinata, the points represent the seven deadly sins. So, you are beating back sin — beating back Satan — when you hit the pinata. Then a reward is showered down on you for beating back Satan.”
She said they wanted to retain the idea of a sculpture with delightful things hidden within.
“Pinatas are these lovely things with frills and bold colors that are delightful to look at,” O’Leary Soudant said. “We wanted to create an installation that had a secret reward when you engage with it.”
The women have rendered designs for the two pairs of sculptures, and the plans are with a fabrication plant in Erie that is pricing out the project. EAC provided each of the seven teams of artists with $10,000 to bring their visions to reality. The women also will go back to the community members to make sure the concept and design have widespread approval. If not, they will “go back to the drawing board,” O’Leary Soudant said.
As currently envisioned, the installation will consist of two sets of brightly colored, 8- to 10-foot wide sculptures that will look like egg-shaped pinatas cut in half.
“The color schemes that Esther has devised speak to the notions of spectrum, diversity and vibrance, as well as a metaphor for equality and balance,” O’Leary Soudant said.
“I hope that the bright, beautiful colors will attract people of all ages, and that they all take in the powerful message of listening, communicating and understanding that we want to pass on,” O’Leary Soudant said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, we want to show that there are many ways to stay in touch safely. I also hope that these beautiful large sculptures will be a great place for people to take selfies, get together, share ideas and communicate.”
The artists haven’t decided on a title yet, but O’Leary Soudant said “Erie is Listening” is a strong contender.
The coronavirus outbreak pushed back the timeline for the sculptures to be installed.
“Originally we hoped to have all residency projects concluded by October 2020,” Fisher said, adding that each participating artist team has been offered an extension of up to six months.
The COVID-19 crisis also curtailed O’Leary Soudant’s planned trips back and forth to Erie this spring. Instead, she and Ortiz have been collaborating via weekly Zoom meetings. The project had also called for O’Leary Soudant to conduct community workshops this summer. Those will be conducted virtually now, as well.
O’Leary Soudant, whose best-known work in Buffalo may be her brightly colored double helix-inspired “Gut Flora” sculpture in the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority station on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, said she is moving toward doing public art exclusively.
“I really believe in the power of public art,” she said. “It’s a type of service. It’s an incredibly powerful tool.”
She said her own journey from being a professional to a student to an educator has brought home to her the power art has to bring people together.
“Just because people don’t participate in creative endeavors regularly doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to engage if they have the opportunity,” she said, “More and more I’m feeling that everybody in the world deserves to be able to engage with something beautiful. Art is not just for people who can afford it.”