The interplay between light and space fascinates Seattle artist Iole Alessandrini. Her complex site-specific installations use controlled environments to explore these elements, often incorporating custom-built lasers, mirrors and other optics. By adding video, music or computerized sound, she creates an intense personal experience that is unique yet fleeting.
Born in Abruzzo, Alessandrini moved to Rome when she was two. She earned a diploma at Rome’s First State School of Fine Arts and a master’s degree in architecture from the University of La Sapienza. In 1994, she moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where she earned a second master’s degree. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and public installations, and she has received many awards. We sat down with Alessandrini to talk about her art.
Tell us about your family and artistic background.
From the time I was little, I knew that art was my calling. My parents were supportive but concerned as well. They worried that a career in art might not provide a good living. It helped that they were very creative people themselves. My father was a cabinet maker, and my mother, an herbalist. My brother, sisters and I grew up drawing and making things. Although my siblings were also very talented, I was the only one who pursued a life of art.
What drove you to add architecture to the mix?
I was strongly influenced by the art and ideology of the Renaissance. If you study any major artist from that era, you will see they combined art with another discipline. Raphael was an artist and an architect. Da Vinci was an artist, engineer and scientist. The same for Michelangelo. Architecture is the obvious course of study if you want to further your understanding of aesthetics.
How did you end up in Seattle?
In 1992, the municipality of Rome announced an international competition to redesign the city’s periphery. I was immediately interested since that is where my family lived and I knew the area well.
In Italy, historic towns have a central core that is charming and beautiful. The center provides everything you need to feel good about living in the city. But on the outskirts, services are dispersed. There is no core. The buildings are not beautiful. My design solution was the opposite of that reality: Develop a central core and produce a sense of place. Build buildings that are welcoming and create a sense of closeness rather than sprawl.
When the entries were displayed, mine was next to one submitted by the University of Washington’s Rome Center. Although I thought our approaches were similar, the UW team had won an honorary mention but I had not. I wanted to know why, so I sought out the director at the time, Professor Astra Zarina. Astra was very welcoming and eventually invited me to continue my studies in Seattle. In fact, I was the first Italian to enroll in the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
How did you get involved with public art?
In the late 1990s, I won a $10,000 grant from the Seattle Arts Commission to create “Visible Memory,” an exhibit that used sound and mirrors installed over three grass-covered bunkers at a former naval air station. Sun-activated audio equipment played my voice reciting excerpts, in English and Italian, from Italo Calvino, and there was chanting recorded by James Whetzel. The idea was to get people to stop and wonder what exists beyond the bunkers.
Light and space are very important elements in your work.
I am fascinated by their connection. Without one, you cannot see the other. When you add time to that duo, you achieve constant change. I want people to engage with my installations, not observe them from a distance.
How do lasers figure into your work?
I’ve done many installations with laser technology, much of it with Ed Mannery, an optical engineer in the University of Washington’s Astronomy Department. One of my most memorable projects was created for St. James Cathedral in Seattle when I merged time-exposure photography with laser plane technology. The installation, “Acceptance and Vulnerability,” recorded the movement of one person in 12-second timed exposures. As she passed in and out of the plane, she became flat and two-dimensional. This approach allows people to see things from a new perspective.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I am working on a public art project for Edmonds, Wash., about 20 miles north of Seattle. Called “Luminous Forest,” it will use LED solar lights embedded along a 1,200-foot corridor that connects Main Street to the Edmonds Center for the Arts. The lights act as a compass to find true north. The idea stems from the history of Edmonds, a town that had its roots in logging. The solar-powered lights will remind people of the large trees that once lined the streets and show how the town’s physical orientation has changed over time.
When you are not creating art, what other activities occupy your time?
I am very involved with The Civita Institute, headquartered in Seattle. Our organization helps preserve the architecture, history, culture and way of life in Civita di Bagnoregio, an ancient hill town north of Rome. I will serve as board president in 2016.
To view the art of Iole Alessandrini: www.iole.org.
To learn more about The Civita Institute: http://www.nia usi.com/1/home.html