Astonish me, New York performance artist Pat Oleszko dared her students. And they did.
The 20 or so aspiring sculptors, fiber artists and ceramacists at the Maryland Institute, College of Art knew instantly what kind of performance they wanted to stage during Ms. Oleszko's weeklong residency at the school.
Rather than target a safe issue like the dismantling of the National Endowment for the Arts, they would create a performance art piece about an event close to home: the eight-alarm inferno that destroyed Clipper Industrial Park on Sept. 16. Nearly two dozen artists -- institute faculty members and students -- lost their life's work in the blaze. And a young firefighter, Eric Schaefer, died beneath the 19th-century foundry's crumbling walls.
"This is something that affects all of us," a student explained to Ms. Oleszko at their first meeting on Thursday, Sept. 21. "This is our local tragedy," said another.
The students' exhilarating resolve impressed Ms. Oleszko, who usually determines a project's theme. Five days later, however, Ms. Oleszko was dumbstruck to hear misgivings among the same students who had been so adamant about focusing on the fire.
Suddenly, plans for an elaborate, costumed procession near the fire site in the city's Hampden-Woodberry community were unraveling.
Her students had begun to appreciate just how personal -- and risky -- a tribute to the foundry loss would be. They would not perform before an anonymous audience. They would perform for colleagues and teachers, whom they sought to please and encountered daily within the institute's insular community.
Their topic would not be global in nature; it would be that of a local disaster that had profoundly affected those colleagues and teachers, a few of whom had already voiced serious objections to the project.
The group itself was split. The performance will offend the people who had lost so much, some workshop participants feared.
It's too soon, they said. The grief too fresh. Didn't the grotesque remains of twisted tools and vaporized kilns speak for themselves?
By Tuesday night, Sept. 26, a pivotal point in Ms. Oleszko's residency, the discussion had become heated. Four days remained before the performance. By now, workshop participants should have been designing costumes, scavenging materials, brainstorming in sync. Instead, seven students huddled in an emotionally exhausting debate.
The procession shouldn't be a circus, said Rachel Katz and Shyla Rao-Jones, who had just spoken to a faculty member leery of the performance.
Have faith in the process, said Jeanne Hoel, 23, a fine arts major who was determined to see the project through. Working together, the group's goals would jell and potential problems would be resolved.
Ms. Oleszko, while accustomed to dissonance and disarray, shook her head and looked skyward for guidance. None came.
For more than 25 years, Ms. Oleszko has mined thought-provoking hilarity from personal and societal juggernauts. Festooned in homemade costumes of epic proportions, Ms. Oleszko, 48, skewers religious-right-sexism-Newt-normalcy. Humor is her modus operandi. "Pat-a-physics," she wrote in a description of her work, is the "science of reality as a joke of serious proportions."
Ms. Oleszko was invited to the Institute because "We like to bring in somebody who is a working artist and is basically out there," said Annet Couwenberg, head of the school's fibers department. Students should be exposed to ways of making art that hinge on complex, real life issues, Ms. Couwenberg said.
Early, brain-flexing exercises introduced Ms. Oleszko's students to performance art. With textbook art-school flair, they proved that they were up to her challenge: "Astonish me."
Flora McGarrell karate-chopped a homemade heart, dangling from the ceiling like a hideous pinata.
Sally Chang, whose hair is shorn like a monk's, performed a stunning dance and decided not to speak for the week.
Jonathan Butt strapped on a colorful airplane contraption and flew down two flights of stairs -- backward -- on roller blades.
Assigned to "alter" her body, Ms. Rao-Jones, a 21-year-old newlywed, became a human altar upon which other students left offerings, from pencils to toy phones to makeup.
Rachel Katz fused the joy of Rosh Hashana and the horror of the Holocaust as she buried her hands and feet in bowls of honey, while wearing a headband that branded her a "Jude." Classmates dipped apple wedges in the honey, a ritual that brings a sweet new year.
Ms. Oleszko urged everyone to take risks. The project is "going to require a lot more for you to get anything out of this, even if you fail," she said.
By Tuesday, the group had reviewed Clipper Mill's history and read accounts of the fire. Costumes, inspired by the mammoth cogs and gears that propelled Clipper Mill's production of boilers, machinery, ammunition, atom bomb components, began to take shape on paper.
But the group faltered. Two students, concerned that the procession would not be a sensitive response to the tragedy, dropped out. (Later, they returned.)
Ms. Oleszko was perplexed. "I have never been in a circumstance where there was the collective urge to do [a specific project,]" she tells the seven students agonizing over the project. And now, that urge was fading.
"It's really touchy, especially how we handle the death of the fireman," Ms. Katz said.
"I feel like you guys are backing out based on the facts of what you're hearing and whether we'll be affected by it," Maygi Harris, 21, said to Ms. Katz and Ms. Rao-Jones. "How many times do we get to do something related to now?" she pleaded.
For the project to work, it is critical to trust one another, Ms. Hoel told the doubters. Look at the "issues we deal with in our work. You know we're not surface performers."
Later that evening, Jessi Belich, 20, produced a narrative to be read during the procession. "I can see those hot, calloused fingers, thick with work," she wrote in a personification of the mill. "I remember."
The artists and cabinet makers who moved to the mill more recently are also remembered in Ms. Belich's poem: "People danced inside my walls/I flew on wings that the artist made there."
A day later, the project was back on track, and an anonymous letter condemning the procession only made the students more determined to go forward.
"I'm hurt that my peers don't understand what we're trying to do and won't come to see for themselves," said Missy Webb, 20.
But the students also decided to invite the artists affected by the fire to a meeting yesterday afternoon. Only Lois Hennessey, a sculptor and teacher at the institute, showed up, clearly shell-shocked from the fire and angry that the students would use the tragedy for a "vulture-like" performance project.
"I just don't know how you could ever understand what's going," she said, her eyes filling with tears as she talked.
But by the time the students finished explaining the project and their intentions, she seemed more understanding. "I feel better having come in here," she told them.
So did the students, who then returned to their frenzy of preparation.
The project had a name now: "Render/Remember." And the performance had been mercifully delayed until Sunday.
The relief was palpable as costumes materialized:
"It's always better to have something in hand," Ms. Harris said as she labored over a cardboard headpiece. "Talk is exhausting."
Inside the studio, Mr. Butt and Ms. Webb made bloated, Mardi Gras-esque heads of Robert Poole and German H. Hunt, founders of the iron foundry.
Ms. McGarrell created an enormous, two-tiered circular saw hat.
Ms. Chang fashioned a huge Ferris wheel-like contraption from tubing and milk crates that she will whirl around her head.
And the three students most worried about showing respect to the dead firefighter -- Ms. Katz, Ms. Rao-Jones, Melissa Lillie -- were planning a memorial to Mr. Schaefer that would include a profusion of flowers donated by two local florists.
Ms. Katz said she still had serious reservations about staging a performance. In light of Mr. Schaefer's death, it was a "morally wrong" thing to do, she said as the performance loomed closer and closer. Yet, her allegiance to the group prevented her from leaving. "All of us had to find our own place in this," she said.
As for Ms. Oleszko, "It's been excruciating," she said with a weary laugh.
The attrition -- the class had dwindled to 12 -- endless discussion, and solemnity certain students insisted on -- she was not used to any of it.
"The experience has been extremely vivid, totally surprising," she said. "The challenge was as great for me as it was for everyone else."