Seeing Magic: The Public Art of Catherine Widgery

Public artist Catherine Widgery is on a mission to enliven our perceptions and engage our brains, to awaken us to the places where we live and work. That may sound like an impossible task until you’ve observed the world through her artist’s eyes.

“I feel as though we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the physical world,” explains Widgery, who has completed forty-eight public art projects to date. “I think we have stopped seeing and become more detached from our bodies and our environments. My goal in making art is to get the viewer’s attention by engaging the brain—to make people stop what they’re doing and look, to bring them alive to their surroundings.”

Cloudbreak photo by Frank Ooms

Our brains, she points out, are exceptional at filtering information that comes in through our senses, which is a good thing when it comes to basic survival and processing our environments, but not so great when it prevents us from really seeing the world around us. By creating art that intrigues and engages the brain with something that doesn’t quite compute, she hopes to “undo” what the brain automatically registers and help us perceive the world more immediately.

To that end Widgery has found her work best expressed via the medium of light, which she describes as a kind of magic that our brains often ignore or filter out. “We don’t perceive anything without light,” Widgery reasons. “It’s what reveals the physical world around us and is always changing, affecting perception at every level. I play with it in my work to show how it reveals the world around us and energy made manifest.”

Widgery didn’t set out with the goal of using light to explore perception and environment: it’s been a process getting to this point in her thirty-plus years as artist. “I am just starting to get better and figure out why and what it is I’m trying to do,” she notes.

Moving Away from the Object

Like many artists, Widgery’s career began with the handmade object. Though she took art classes as a child, she was never serious enough with her work to consider it as a career. Her epiphany moment came one evening while she was at Yale University, where she would earn her bachelor’s degree. “My friends were all going out for pizza one night and invited me to join them,” she recalls, “but all I could think about was going to the art studio. It was my place, and it’s where I wanted to be—even more than going out with my friends.”

After college Widgery taught art for awhile, and though offered a tenure-track position, realized quickly that teaching was not for her. She began catering as a way to earn a living, but was able to quickly transition to a career as a public artist, thanks to her residence in Montreal. “Quebec had a very early percent-for-art program,” she explains. “I got my first public art commission in 1980 when I was 27, and that was the beginning of earning a living from my art. It has not always been easy; there have been scary moments, but the competitions and continuing need for the next job were great stimuli to my creativity. I’ve often thought that if I hadn’t had to scramble for work to survive, I wouldn’t have created so much or been stretched so far to reinvent my work again and again.”

Ripples photo by Michel Dubreuil

For many years she worked on smaller, more ephemeral studio pieces while simultaneously working as a public artist; she created hand-crafted objects that she continues to show on her website so that viewers “get a sense of me as an artist.” Her last studio show was in 2007, after which her studio pieces and public artwork merged, the public works fully reflecting her creative endeavors. The hand-crafted sculptural object was relinquished for public work that focused instead on experiential environments.

“We know from physics the duality of light and matter; they behave both as particles and waves,” Widgery explains. ”Solid objects are actually mostly empty space. We can only see a tiny fraction of all the waves and particles that surround us, colliding, repelling and attracting as energy zipping around us that we can’t feel or see.” The search to explore this unknowable, unseen world through art propelled her to create what she called “hybrid images,” a visual exploration of time, movement, and nature.

Her 2014 project Ripples, for example, commissioned for the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, where she collaborated with Rufus Butler Seder, shows three simultaneous moments in time in thin, alternating slivers. The impression of movement is achieved via thin, etched lines that “interfere” with an image behind them, which the brain interprets as the motion of expanding rings of water. The goal of the piece is to remind the viewer of eternal rhythms and cycles, to create a contemplative, soothing experience in a place—an airport—that might otherwise cause stress. By challenging the brain’s perception, Ripples, like all of Widgery’s hybrid images, reflected the artist’s call to engage. To awaken.

Waking to Light

As Widgery’s concepts changed, so did her space and process for creating art. A once-large studio space filled with tools and machines gave way to two smaller studios in Guatemala and Boston, where she continues her work in the digital space of 3D modeling programs and virtual renderings. She devotes a couple of hours a day to learning about the latest technologies, designs, and materials that might inspire her work, and relies on the expertise of skilled fabricators to bring her designs to life. She seeks out projects where collaboration with architects, engineers, and the client is emphasized and carefully considers the viewers and context of a space when designing her work.

Her artistic evolution continued when she eventually did away with images entirely and allowed the surrounding environment to become the subject matter for her work. “My tools today are reflections that make the physical medium ‘disappear.’ Those reflections move when we do, so our movement and time become part of the work,” she explains.

Sky Veil, for example, which she completed in 2015 for the Ogden Juvenile Courthouse in Utah, is composed of panels of dichroic glass, installed on the mullions of an enormous wall of windows facing the Wasatch Mountain Range. Visitors who enter the space see the reflection of the sky and mountains through a veil of color. The view is limitless and boundaries are removed—nothing exists between viewer and sky, a beautiful respite for those who may be experiencing sorrow or stress in that space.

Urban Fabric photo by Andy Tibbetts

A soon-to-be-installed project, Urban Fabric, a dichroic art glass canopy that wraps around the new YC Condo building in Toronto, uses light and reflections to mimic the activity of the city and its residents. When there is more light behind the glass, viewers see the surroundings through a veil of color. When there is more light in front of the glass, the piece reflects the movement around it like a dusky mirror. Surroundings are seen as if through a fragmented, altered-reality lens.

“Light is doing magical things around us all the time,” Widgery notes. “But it is invisible to most people because they are not looking, not seeing. This magic is what I want to bring into the environments where I install art. I transform the surfaces that surround the viewer so the light magic is visible, and I bring color to all of this. Maybe because to me color is life and beauty—and we need more of both.”

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