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Columbus Makes Art Presents Artist Danielle Julian Norton

Melissa Starker Melissa Starker Columbus Makes Art Presents Artist Danielle Julian NortonDanielle (left) and Kim Webb (right). Photo by Ty Wright.
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On view now at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment brings together more than 20 artists to consider essential questions about the role of artists and institutions in revealing and addressing critical issues facing our world. The exhibition fills all of the center’s galleries as well as outdoor spaces, and one of the first works visitors encounter as they walk up to the building is Vitamins for Space by Danielle Julian Norton. A tiny ecosystem constructed of wood, metal, plant life and vintage wheels, the artist and Columbus College of Art & Design professor explains below how the work is a small extension of a much larger project in southern Ohio: an outdoor artist studio space called Zippitydirtdada on a plot of land purchased shortly after the 2016 election.

Melissa: Why did you choose to do an outdoor installation?
Danielle: Public art is more accessible. This is just thinking about ideas of access. It’s all really tied together.

Melissa: Tell us a little about Zippitydirtdada and how Vitamins for Space connects to what you’ve been doing there.
Danielle: A long time ago, I purchased Zippitydirtdada, a 30-acre forest space near Lake Hope and New Plymouth, a little bit past Hocking Hills. The reason for purchasing that space was getting less virtual, being more in real time, slowing down—which is interesting in what happened since then. It was also about patriarchal fatigue, and doing something politically where you can create your own environment.

The piece is like a small ecosystem that moves very slowly, incorporates water and is powered by solar—so solar, sun, wind and it’s all connected. It’s also what had been on my mind. I noticed that students were having a harder time connecting and it seemed like their anxiety was going through the roof. There was something about the disconnect between virtual space and me just actually talking to them.

Also when I was a teenager my dream was to become a park ranger. And my mom said, “Oh Danielle, that’s so competitive.” (And it’s funny—I became an artist.) I grew up in Grandview, but I love camping and hiking. Some of my daughter’s and my favorite times have been hiking together. It’s just, things seem not to really matter. I can kind of reboot.

Building the kiln at Zippitydirtdada.
Building the kiln at Zippitydirtdada.

[Zippitydirtdada] was a lot of different things colliding. Politically, it’s about taking space in what used to be a sundowner town. Also, how do you bridge gaps between political divides? There are a lot of Confederate flags there. And thinking about the community there. The land is very important to them. It also has a rich history of clay. One of the first projects, we were building a kiln through a Denny Griffith grant, because the area is just full of clay. The iron furnace is there. It just has really cool Native American history—just really cool history.

There are other parts of this project. It’s been fun, thinking about creative space differently. It was wild but also a lot of work. We did build a toilet structure. It is the Cadillac of outhouses. Then we put a small cabin there. Kim Webb, Eva Ball, Hank Koehler, Sonya Fix and so many people have done great things there. There are probably 20 people who’ve been wonderful in participating and I’m really thankful.

Melissa: Would you share some info about the materials you used for Vitamins for Space?
Danielle: It’s primarily steel, because it’s going outside. And cedar wood, a solar panel, water, plants, moss—which is one of the oldest plants and one of my favorites—and bronze vegetables. And it’s kinetic, so its movements are powered by the sun. And there are some wheels from rural Ohio; one is from near where Zippitydirtdada is, a barge metal wheel, and the other is an old wagon wheel from Gambier. Also some clay from Zippitydirtdada, part of the moss mound there.

Installation of Vitamins for Space.
Installation of Vitamins for Space.

Melissa: How were you approached by Lucy to take part in this?Danielle: Lucy’s been great. I really admire her and just enjoyed working with her, and this show seems fantastic.

We got to know each other through the CCAD faculty exhibition she curated about two years ago and she did a studio visit, and I did a project called Turn Factory that had similar ideas. She said she’d like to circle back around to do a project for this show.

When I was working on that piece, I was working on another piece called Talking to Plants. It was right after the [2016] election and I realized my house was full of plants that I was taking care of, and I was like, is there something wrong with me? (Laughs)

When you’ve been traumatized, caretaking is a form of healing. I looked at it as how you can control an environment and take care of other people, and then it exploded into Zippitydirtdada and putting people in that space. And there’s no end. This could just eternally be. But it’s a nice space to go.

Installation of Vitamins for Space.
Another installation photo of Vitamins for Space.

Melissa: How do you see the work fitting into the show’s theme?
Danielle: The role of institutions and artists is something I’ve always circled. There was a point where I was going to art fairs and I wondered, what is the ultimate end to this? Who does this benefit? I was on this bus at the art fair in Miami having a crisis about it, and this stranger said, “Think of all the artists this is supporting.” But I think it’s critical for artists and institutions to examine, who does this benefit in the end. That self-assessment is important for me as an educator and for institutions.

I think the role for myself is… it’s so complicated, but I try to give students the tools they need, and I think critique is really important. You’re thinking about the history of something. The critical thinking skill is beneficial for everyone, something people really need. If the police forces just taught critique skills…

I think the role for myself is… it’s so complicated, but I try to give students the tools they need, and I think critique is really important. You’re thinking about the history of something. The critical thinking skill is beneficial for everyone, something people really need. If the police forces just taught critique skills…

I think I can also give students the tools for how they can be self-sustaining. The piece is self-sustaining and I feel empowered because I can control. When I don’t have to rely, I feel good.

Melissa: What’s your favorite thing about the Columbus art scene? Danielle: I’m excited about this exhibition that Lucy has curated—so sculpturally raw, fresh, ambitious, motivating—and it pushes me forward, looking at the artists she brought together. I needed it like a good chiropractor. The ability to work through all challenges during this exhibition.

I was delighted to see the Stonewall show at the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Aminah Robinson exhibition and the exhibition at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery curated by Heather Taylor. I missed seeing art in person. 

But sadly, today we’re learning that No Place Gallery is closing its doors. I mean, every artist I talk to is having a hard time emotionally. This year was a disaster and taking a toll on every artist I know. But a positive from this was that it was great for us to stop and see ourselves, see how fucked up we are and make a change, Columbus artists taking action in various ways from the street to institutions. Also, Columbus artists are close, stay connected and look after each other. Columbus artists are also using the time to make work, and that has been inspiring. Just the fact that artists continue their work during a most challenging time is incredible. 

For more information about the Wex’s winter 2021 exhibition Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment, go to wexarts.org.

Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting and advancing the arts and cultural fabric of Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art. Learn more about local artists, organizations, public art and events at ColumbusMakesArt.com.

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