Maren Hassinger points to a pile of flimsy pink plastic shopping bags in one corner of her office/studio at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "Those bags are from one of the happiest days I've spent here," she says.
On a lovely afternoon last spring, Hassinger decided that students in her performance workshop at the Rinehart School of Sculpture would tie the pink bags together and weave them in and out of the trees outside.
People ended up chasing the bags in the breeze, and, as Hassinger describes it, the day unfolded like an idyllic scene out of an 18th-century painting - except that chasing the bags involved dodging cars.
"It was the most fun. It was like being a kid again, and absolutely perfect for that day," Hassinger says. "It was a magical two hours, and I'm still feeling the joy."
Not exactly traditional sculpture, but just the kind of thing the institute wanted Hassinger to do when they hired her to head the Rinehart School last year.
The Rinehart graduate school of sculpture, which turned 100 in 1996, is the oldest and most venerated of the institute's graduate schools and enjoys a high national reputation. In his 36-year tenure, previous director Norman Carlberg changed the school's primary focus from traditional to modern sculpture. When he decided to retire, the institute sought a successor who would continue to broaden the school's outlook.
"We are crossing into a new era," says Leslie King-Hammond, the dean of graduate studies, who headed the search committee for the new director. "We wanted to take a long hard look at where the discipline of sculpture is. We wanted someone not labeled and self-defined in one specific genre, someone with a voice open enough and engaged in all questions of how sculpture functions, not just as an object but as installation, performance, public art and so on."
In Maren Hassinger, the institute found what it was looking for. In the 25 years since she finished graduate school in her native California, Hassinger, now 51, has made an increasing reputation as an artist willing to embrace all kinds of media and approaches, from plastic bags to performance.
In her best-known works, she has used industrial materials such as wire cable, often unwound into fluttery-looking strands and fashioned to resemble natural forms such as trees and bushes. In the 1991 installation "Circle of Bushes," a group of bushes made of cable was placed outdoors among real foliage at Long Island University in Brookville, New York.
"Paradise" of 1991 is now on view in an outdoor show at Harford Community College in Bel Air. It consists of 144 concrete blocks with a strand of undulating wire rope "growing" out of each of them, looking like long grass bending in the wind.
This art comments on the uneasy relationship of the natural and man-made worlds. If man keeps destroying nature, it says, we may be left with nothing but fake nature made out of man-made materials. "It says that this is where we are, and this is kind of sad where we are," Hassinger says.
But these works are also beautiful, and gently didactic rather than polemical, and they suggest that in an ideal world nature and industry might be able to live together in harmony. They are ultimately affirmative, and in that they reflect the artist. "I really am hopeful. It's part of my nature, my ingrained nature," Hassinger says.
There are more levels to Hassinger's work. She is an African-American woman, and if her art speaks to the uneasy relationship between nature and industry, it says the same about relations between races and genders, and reflects her hopes in those areas, too. "I'm hopeful that someday everybody will be much nicer to everybody," she says.
Among her more wide-ranging works, "The Cloud Room" (1992) at the Pittsburgh airport featured a video of clouds with natural sounds including wind and crickets to provide a contemplative space for travelers. "Voices" (1984), performed at Los Angeles City College in 1984, featured a video of the evening news and actors speaking about nature, all in a room where the walls and floor were covered with leaves.
Hassinger thinks her mixing of art forms springs partly from her African heritage. "That is a very common thing that Africans do," she says. "There is not this big separation between making objects and performance. For the work they call masquerade, they make the masks and do the dances that are related to social and religious and spiritual concerns."
Hassinger believes that "we are the product of our past," not only our lived past but the heredity that's passed down generationally and genetically, and that people are born with great potential. "I think we come here all programmed for what it is that we're going to do and that if we're fortunate enough we can accomplish it."
But if she were meant to be a sculptor, she didn't know it at first. An aspiring dancer when she entered Bennington College in Vermont in 1965, Hassinger was encouraged to study sculpture. She subsequently earned a B.A. degree in art from Bennington in 1969 and an M.F.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1973.
After spending her early professional years in California, she moved to New York in the mid-1980s and there built a solid reputation as a teacher as well as an artist. Most recently she was a lecturer in the art department of State University of New York at Stony Brook, from which she came to the Institute in 1997. Now living in Baltimore, she is separated from her husband, free-lance writer Peter Hassinger, and has two children, daughter Ava, 12, and son Jesse, 9, who attend public school here.
Although her art is radically different from her predecessor's, Hassinger did not institute sweeping changes. The school is small, with only five students in each of two years. They don't come to learn a certain curriculum but are given latitude to pursue the avenues they want. "The motivation must be your own," says current Rinehart student Fred Van Dyk.
In such an environment, Hassinger sees her purpose as encouraging students and opening up new possibilities for them.
"I really try to encourage my students to try things that they haven't tried before, and sometimes the students are interested and sometimes they're not," she says. "My concern is that if you don't try out what's coming down the pike you may never get to your proper maturity, and while you're a student it should be the time when you really get going."
To that end, so far Hassinger has initiated a performance seminar, in which the students have explored gesture and movement and similar activities - like weaving pink plastic bags among trees on a spring afternoon. This semester the seminar has taken a different direction, evolving into discussions of subjects the students are interested in.
Hassinger has also broadened the categories of visiting artists to include a dancer, a physicist, a playwright, a gallery owner and others outside the fine arts.
Not all of the Rinehart students are on Hassinger's wave length. One of them, John Monaco, says her idea of sculpture is quite different from his. "To Maren, sculpture is anything you call sculpture. I don't agree; I think sculpture is a specific thing," he says. "But I get going from that. It makes me fortify my position, and that's a good thing."
Monaco also likes the fact that Hassinger tries to offer students everything from materials to ideas, including inviting visiting artists with ideas antithetical to her own, and putting her experience at the disposal of the students. "Those things are very good," he says.
Hassinger doesn't claim that everything's ideal at the Institute. She thinks the students are generally less open to new ideas than she is, and she senses some gender discrimination. "It's a macho medium, and it attracts macho people, and I have a lot of macho students," she says. "My students discriminate. I know sometimes from the comments they make or their way of making them. They don't mean to be hurtful or ignorant, but it's definitely there."
On the whole, though, she's quite happy with her situation. "To have this job allows me to work full-time thinking about sculpture and helping other people make sculpture and making my own. Finally at mid-century I get to do that. So it's good."
Pub date: 12/20/98