Chicago artist discusses her latest C-U sculptures, 'Amplifiers,' 'Asteray'

By Sarah Foster

The products of Nicole Beck’s creative mind have decorated the Champaign-Urbana area for four years.

Sculptures “Asteray,” “Astroterra” and “Foxgloves” stand tall in the community for art-enthusiasts and simple spectators alike, while another sculpture, “Amplifiers,” installed last fall in front of the Electrical and Computer Engineering building, welcomes students as they enter the campus facility. “Asteray” is currently featured at the Urbana Free Library.

The Chicago-based artist, however, doesn’t just want to create monuments of beauty. She hopes that all people gazing upon her work can take something away — whether it’s a lesson about the workings of the world or life itself. The Daily Illini had the opportunity to speak with Beck about her latest work and her art career.

The Daily Illini: What do you think the importance of art is in today’s society?

Nicole Beck: I think art is always on that front edge of what’s happening in culture, and the best artists are visionary about what’s to come. (The University) has the largest supercomputer — Blue Waters — and people all over the world want to use that computer to do complex data computations. I want to reflect things like that — to think about larger issues of what goes on in everyday life, instead of just making something beautiful or slick.

I’m interested in the spiritual component of understanding, where we lie in terms of the universe and trying to understand the spiritual and metaphysical implications of that. We’re just a speck here in a huge universe. When you go back to that first piece for Navy Pier, it’s about looking at the microcosm and macrocosm simultaneously and connecting where we are in that paradigm. I’m also interested in how we relate to the environment and our ecosystem on Earth immediately around us. Those are the things that fuel my artwork.

DI: Could you give a brief explanation of “Amplifiers” and your inspiration for it?

NB: It was intended to honor the joint discoveries of two of the ECE’s renowned Professors Emeriti — John Bardeen and Nick Holonyak, Jr. — and to become an LED beacon of their collaborative spirits for future researchers at the University of Illinois. In brainstorming this design, I was inspired by extensive communications with ECE Professor John Michael Dallesasse. I couldn’t have done it without the help of Dallesasse. I had five different sketches of what I wanted to create, and I would bounce my ideas off of him, and he would give me feedback as to whether that was appropriate to what was being studied at the U of I. He would go at lengths to explain these concepts.

DI: What was the process of creating “Amplifiers”? How did you turn just an idea about the College of Engineering’s history into a finished product?

NB: Specifically the process for “Amplifiers,” I create sketches while I’m doing research on a concept that’s specific to the site, and from those sketches, I will get feedback from key players as to what’s most appropriate for the site. We call that site-specific in public art world. Ultimately, I’m most interested in creating things that are site-specific.

Then, from the sketches, I do a two-scale maquette, a French word for scale model, just a small version of what I’m thinking of, and then I work out all the kinks and logistics about how the thing is actually going to be built. Then, when the maquette was accepted by U of I as a final sculpture, I went to my fabricator, I chose a fabricator for that particular project. Usually I make them myself, but this time I was able to hire a reputable manufacturer to do the building. They took my maquette and translated it into CADs (computer aided designs), and then those materials could be self-contracted. … Once you have those CADs in hand, they’re upscaled from the maquette. … It starts with some research and some sketches, which grow into the maquette, then it goes to the fabricator for CADs.

DI: Do you think this is what sets you apart from other artists — your work to make something that isn’t just beautiful but meaningful as well?

NB: I think a lot of artists still work intuitively, based on modern art paradigms. That particularly is true in the sculpture world. My stuff is definitely conceptually based, and it’s very important that it be site-specific. Those things set me apart, definitely. That’s why I won the commission. When you have to do a formal proposal in front of an art committee, there’s a room full of key players, and there’s a dozen of them, you have to talk about your concept and how you’re going to build it. They’re interested in something that’s going to resonate with the site and the community. Those are the important things. I like to think that that does set my work apart from others.

DI: Did your other sculpture in the area, “Asteray,” have a deeper meaning as well?

NB: Yes, a lot of my forms have multiple meanings, and that particular one has a dual-meaning. It’s supposed to be an asteroid that’s just prior to earthly impact, and in the “asteroid,” the bowl with the mosaic in it, is what they call miasma, which basically means life form from elsewhere, and it’s going to explode on earth. But it also is about a prairie wildflower that’s indigenous to the Illinois region, Prairie Smoke. (Asteray) has beautiful tendrils that stick straight up into the air like that flower.

That piece is not site-specific. I made that piece in the studio, and it’s an independent sculpture that actually has been leased by the City of Urbana. After that lease is over, it will travel somewhere. It’s a traveling piece. It’s a vagabond piece. … This is what I want to do: site-specific. In the past I’ve just made sculptures that vagabond around on leases, on expeditions, in Indiana, Missouri, Chicago. But this U of I sculpture is really important.

DI: What inspired you to pursue art, specifically creating sculptures?

NB: I feel like I was born to make art. I remember always making art back in my childhood, sitting with my mom coloring and painting in kindergarten. I think it’s in my blood; I really don’t have a choice whether I’m going to make art or not. I grew up in Libertyville, Ill., and in high school, I got the art award. … Even when I was pursuing a Pharmacy degree at Purdue University, I was still taking art classes. I never finished my degree; I got a master’s in Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing from Northern Illinois University.

Sarah can be reached at [email protected]