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The art of Amanda Browder’98 connects students, community members

A public sewing day. Credit: Amanda Browder

For a decade and a half, the faces of community buildings across the United States have been sprouting brightly colored, three-story-high quilts. The fabric stays wrapped around each building for a couple of days, and then it disappears, leaving behind in the collective awareness of each community an understanding that the building that was covered will never be ordinary again.

Beloit becomes one of those communities this weekend, as the partly-finished interior of Beloit College’s Powerhouse project displays Power Plant Beloit, the most recent creation facilitated by Amanda Browder’98, a self-described “large-scale fabric installation artist.” Browder has been commuting between Beloit and her current home in Brooklyn to coordinate the installation through the college’s Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. Endowed Artists-in-Residence Program. She is eager to make students and community members aware of the space inside the former Blackhawk Generating Station, a relic of the town’s industrial history, before it’s been completely converted.

A bridge between the blue collar legacy of Beloit: the City and the elite and forward-looking philosophy of Beloit: the College was missing for Amanda Browder when she arrived on campus as a freshman in the Fall of 1994. “At Beloit, my biggest frustration was my understanding of the town of Beloit versus the college itself,” she told the Round Table on April 10, noting that students here often feel nomadic.

Browder speaks about the fictional artist David Coulentianos in the Wright Museum in 1998. Credit: Amanda Browder

Browder’s fabric installations are defined by her open-invitation Sewing Days (she held them on and off campus in Beloit for two weeks last month) and by her reliance on community members to donate fabric. Both of these approaches grew out of that desire to connect with the permanent citizens of each town she visits. “I would love to have every single person in the city participate,” she said. “I try to get as close as I can.” 

Browder considers herself a facilitator of whatever’s created next, and of the resulting interactions between groups who might otherwise never meet each other – like Beloit College students passing through and retirees who’ve lived in this city their entire lives. She’s hoping that this project has given something to current students that she never had: a tangible understanding that “the town is living around them, and it exists.”

Even though Browder said she and her peers rarely left campus, which is still common among Beloiters today, she can tell that parts of the city don’t look the same as they did when she graduated. Billionaire real estate developer and Beloit College trustee Diane Hendricks has transformed the downtown area with renovation projects during of the past twenty years, adding upscale hotels, restaurants and apartment complexes. Browder said she admires Hendricks’s dedication to the small city’s economy, although she notes that her projects have so far been concentrated in one area (the same area as the Powerhouse project). Browder hesitates to use words like “update” when she speaks about these projects.

As warmly as Browder speaks today of her collaboration with communities around the country and the art that they create together, her initial idea for projects like Power Plant Beloit was born out of frustration. “I’ve always seen soft sculpture as legitimate art, but I was shifted into a craft-based art world [as a fabric artist],” she said. “I was frustrated that I was not given legitimacy as a contemporary artist,” especially as a female-identifying artist working in a traditionally feminine medium.

“So I said, ‘I’m gonna cover buildings!’”

Although her art was meant to subvert and reject that “craft” label, Browder realized in the process that the women from small-town sewing circles who showed up to help her were indeed artists. “These are the people that we’re forgetting,” she said. 

Browder wants to “encourage everyday citizens to understand that being creative is a good thing; it’s not scary,” she said. “Creativity is a positive experience. The notion that you’re only an artist if you’re in a gallery should be eroded.” She added, “we shouldn’t believe that if you’re not considered an artist, you can’t do creative work.” 

The Wind Project, 1998. Credit: Amanda Browder

Browder is not new to demanding that her audience ask what it means to call oneself an artist. On April 10, 1998, the Round Table reported: 

A current exhibit in the Wright Museum of Art showcases the work [of] David Coulentianos, a well known Madison artist. What the average museum goer might not know is that Coulentianos is actually senior Amanda Browder.

Turning from a more traditional senior exhibit, Browder chose to try something controversial. By questioning the role of the artist, she forces the viewer to take a more active approach to viewing art.

[…]

By creating a male persona, Browder has given up her title as artist in order to expose the way an artist’s name affects the way the art is viewed.

She stressed last week that she was able to pull off the project just months before Google might have made it impossible. Browder published a press release about David Coulentianos in the Beloit Daily News; distributed photos of herself dressed as a man and claimed that they were of the artist; and delivered a formal presentation on the work of Coulentianos before revealing that he did not exist.

That same Spring semester, Browder executed what she considers her other significant undergraduate art piece, this one in celebration of Beloit College’s sesquicentennial. The Wind Project was installed in secret at about three in the morning, Browder said, so that students crossing Pearsons Quad later that day were surprised to find themselves surrounded by lengths of PVC pipe attached to colorful flags, designed to wave in the wind like enormous blades of grass.

Part of the goal of that piece was to jar students into thinking about how they experienced their everyday route to class, and about how they spent time outside on campus. “I don’t want the Beloit College world to keep going inward, inward, inward,” said Browder.

She is excited to watch students and community members who helped sew Power Plant Beloit witness the influence of their labor this weekend. “In the end, it’s about this awe-inspiring visual surprise… when you see larger work that you worked on, it becomes very emotional.”

And it’s eye-catching.“I believe that color is a fabulous thing,” Browder said.

Free public viewing for Power Plant Beloit is open Friday, April 20 from 1pm – 4pm; Saturday, April 21 from 10am to 5pm; and Sunday, April 22 from 12 pm – 4pm in the Powerhouse. Social media posts tagged #powerplantbeloit may be used in a book about the installation.

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