Outside the white box and into the breathing visual arts: A sit down with Adam Frelin

As we reach towards our ninth year of operation, The Santo Foundation begins to look back and reflect, reacquainting and introducing some of our incredible past recipients of the Individual Artist Awards on a more personal level and giving you a glimpse into their working and creating life.

We start this project with an interview with 2016 Individual Artist Award winner Adam Frelin, whose studio life, work, exhibition experience and creative vision illustrate how diverse, transformative and immersive art is, inside and outside the white box.

For Frelin in his studio, which he finds almost always ends up as himself at a desk and a computer, his practice is less driven by materials or technique and instead is more about an effect or an outcome.

His award winning work, “Breathing Lights,” gently and with immersive diligence illuminated the street-facing windows of hundreds of abandoned buildings in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, NY. A collaboration with architect Barbara Nelson, Breathing Lights was truly a community civic art installation, bringing together local fabricators, students, engineers, artists and product developers to design and install custom lighting instruments consisting of miniature LED strip lights bound in adhesive fabric, affixed to interior window frames. The lights shone through windows covered in diffusion material, powered and controlled by batteries and rheostats.

Concentrated in high vacancy, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, these installations transformed “vacant structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth.” Warm light filled each window with a dispersing glow that flows through the tender pulses that mimic human breathing into a gentle exhale of the light into the next street-facing windows in the series of buildings on a block.

You can still view Breathing Lights in the formalized video production that provides a soothing, almost meditative experience with instrumental tones. To experience Breathing Lights in its most beautiful essence, is to watch however, now, clips, of the truly public art interactions with the installation, in which Breathing Lights “lives” with and within the neighborhoods alongside people; with pedestrians and the voices and laughter of children playing in the background, as another living organism within the community, in the most captivating and conscientious way.

Adam Frelin: A Brief Conversation:

Artist Inspirations: Christo & Jean Claude and Maya Lin

The Santo Foundation Individual Artist Award means: My work is set up in conversation or often referenced as being the exception, but in reality, when you think about it, galleries are the exception. I mean, in regard to the space and what you do – you install your work on an empty wall and a month later it comes down.

This type of opportunity drives competition, and I think that’s great. Its not just for artists who do the typical studio work in a traditional sense.

This opportunity is not only the financial award, but validation of your work, that it is being viewed and experienced alongside visual artists in traditional and non-traditional mediums and materials. It is validation that your work is reaching people and that it has an effect.

What’s next? I am currently working on two commission projects, but am also going back to China and back to India.

Although I am an atheist, I am inspired by the rituals and habits of people of faith or for religious purposes. In Rajasthan, India, there is an incredible temple dedicated to rats, because they are held  as having divine properties. And it is not just like there is a giant rat statue or something, it is that at this sacred space, the people go to this space everyday to feed the rats. The temple area is filled with rats.

What’s the dream project for you? This past project (Breathing Lights) might very well be the pinnacle of my artistic career. 

I have had this plan for a series of lighthouses, beacons of light in empty spaces and then as well in the woods. It would be found as someone is walking down a path or through a wooded area, and then the would come across this lighthouse in the middle of the woods.

If I wasn’t an artist: There are these GE think tank divisions where a product is created and they have professionals analyze all of the innovative opportunities and possibilities for all potential uses for the product for patent purposes. That would be an interesting and inspiring path to take.

Also, I have always been inspired by and originally wanted to pursue landscape architecture. So, I guess I would probably start a landscaping business if I get fired from my teaching job and my art career goes up in smoke!

Advice to budding artists:

  • Pay attention to and really focus on working what you are really interested in doing and what you keep going back to. If your professor you look up to likes pouring metal, that’s what he or she likes. Pay attention to what you find your mind wanting to go back to.
  • Don’t worry so much about the gallery scene. Maybe this is more so in New York and LA, but I have friends who have spent years trying to get into the “right galleries” for them and their career.

    If your work is great and stands out, its going to work. Don’t limit yourself to those spaces though. In a way, even though they [galleries] are the traditional way of exhibiting your work or having it seen, they are the exception. They are the fabricated, exceptional spaces. They don’t meet people in life. Don’t be afraid to look beyond that.

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