Today’s feature comes to us from visual artist Sue Willis, whose work titled The Upper Worlds is installed in The Corner Room at the NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan Library. Thanks to Curator and Art Librarian Arezoo Moseni for her help in assembling this feature! ~Laura

by Sue Willis

Located in The Corner Room, my exhibit is an expression of The Upper Worlds, where our energies are accumulated and mirrored back to us, causing harmony or destruction. The large site-specific exhibition is installed in the windows facing Fifth avenue, consisting of life-sized animals in porcelain and faux-fur, small human figures and the three columns of The Tree of Life, in silk flowers and mixed materials. Birds in flight are meant to connect the audience with The Upper Worlds. The windows reflect the city’s surrounding architecture, superimposing the modern world on both the natural habitat and the aftermath of destruction in two separate displays. The reflections, although beautiful, have ominous undertones. But a cause for hope is expressed through the energies of the idyllic habitat, meant to convey the unity and transcendence occurring through our collective positive energies. The concept continues in the room’s interior cabinets, containing horses, elephants and birds, in porcelain, resin and watercolor.

I became aware of this exhibition opportunity when Arezoo Moseni, the curator of Art in the Corner Room Exhibition Series, emailed me through my website and invited me to create a site-specific installation.

Sue Willis, The Upper Worlds, detail, aftermath of destruction window, Fifth Avenue view.

One of the biggest challenges of designing an installation for a public space involved how to protect the fragile work from being handled and the environments from being entered into by the public. Remarkably I was able to salvage the valuable 6 X 8 ft. sheets of thick Plexiglas and safely truck them to Mid-Manhattan Library, along with the habitats, trees and animals. But my first challenge upon being invited to create this installation was to conceive of ways to fill the vast display windows, collectively measuring 14 ft. wide by 16 ft. high by 4ft. deep. I decided my animal sculptures should be life-sized, and my priority aside from aesthetics and functionality was to construct them out of lightweight and sturdy material. I began by sculpting the heads and paws in porcelain, later positioning them onto bodies built over lightweight armatures with fake-fur overlays. I chose to animate the vertical space by suspending broad-winged birds and flowering vines from a 12′ high grid. Organizing every aspect of the fabrication, concept design, set-construction, budget and crowd funding to offset costs were additional challenges.

Sue Willis, The Upper Worlds, detail, aftermath of destruction window, inside view

It means everything to me to show at The New York Public Library. I care that my work is seen by the general public, especially children, as it communicates something which affects all of us, the importance of being good caretakers of our planet, its organisms and habitats. It’s important to me that children care to assume this role as responsible custodians of Earth. I believe my work is understood by young children and a wide demographic, and the Library affords this.

Libraries have always been a place where I could quietly commune with a world of information. As a student before the computer age I was introduced to the idea of random encounters, where a search for a book would often lead to an unexpected text shelved next to the object of my search, which then lead to other surprise finds. As an adult I still relish the randomness associated with my search for library materials. I enjoy the element of surprise and always determine the finds to be serendipitous. As an educator I often seek the help of school librarians for new materials I can share with my students. There’s an intimacy in sharing a book while sitting within a circle of students that can’t be duplicated by projecting images on a wall. Students feel more involved, and even safe, perhaps because some of them recall a time when they shared this experience with parents.

Sue Willis, The Upper Worlds, detail, Cecil in idyllic habitat window, Fifth Avenue view

Sue Willis, The Upper Worlds, detail, idyllic habitat window, Fifth Avenue view

Working with Arezoo Moseni was incredibly inspiring. She understood my ideas perfectly and allowed me full license to communicate my concept as I’d envisioned it. Her assistance and feedback during the installation was invaluable, as she was entirely connected and supportive of my goals. I was honored to work with her and trusted her completely.

The Mid-Manhattan Library installation provided an opportunity to create my largest and most complex installation and gave credence to the idea that if an artist persevered long enough, an opportunity would arise. My lifelong desire was to create something magical which could be viewed by a wide demographic and age group, and I was floored to be invited to install in the Corner Room. When I first met with Arezoo Moseni and understood what she was offering, I was captivated by the perfect fit of my concept to the space, and felt I’d entered the dimension where dreams are answered. But along with opportunities come challenges, replete with fear and sleepless nights. One of the larger lessons of being an artist is to overcome what appear as enormous obstacles and realize you’ve done it. The faith this reinforces in oneself and one’s process is invaluable. 

Information about events associated with The Upper Worlds may be found at the NYPL website:

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