This post was written by my friend and fellow artist Shawnee Barton. I hope you enjoy it --- and you should also check out her artwork, here!
Before I take kids to see “Apex Chariots,” a work of art created by artist Roman de Salvo for Animal Art, the current exhibition at The New Children’s Museum in San Diego, I ask them, “How could you move a cart without pushing it, using a motor, or an animal?” Almost always, this question inspires wacky answers: “I’d attach it to a bunch of balloons!” or “Put it on skis!” But the kids never come up with de Salvo’s unique solution—he utilizes unicycle parts that allow riders to move the cart by pumping a horseshoe shaped lever up and down.
The chariots are a group of finely crafted carts powered by human interaction. They are made of sustainable materials such as rattan and eco-friendly shellac, which pays homage to the NCM’s green mission. The NCM is a unique art space that resides in a new spacious, environmentally friendly facility in downtown San Diego. The NCM commissions contemporary artists to create projects that have as much integrity as the work they show in other museums and exhibition spaces, with one extra challenge. The NCM projects must be approachable and engaging enough to appeal to a young audience.
Each week I lead exhibition tours to school groups at the museum, and the chariots are one of the most popular works in this exhibition. Kids love driving them through the space, and the chariots also encourage young viewers to think about how our choices affect the environment and the other animals sharing our planet.
During my tours, the kids and I talk about the drawings on the front of the chariots. Each one depicts a different animal that was driven to extinction because of people, such as the stellar sea cow, which was hunted out of existence back in 1768. We discuss ways to help endangered animals, talk about the harmful side effects of cars, and brainstorm more sustainable ways to travel. I always feel hopeful after these conversations because the kids are so savvy when it comes to environmental issues.
Students have bragged that their parents drive hybrids like kids bragged about their parent’s Cadillac when I was young. They tell me about planting trees with their classmates, and they share factoids with the group, like the number of Siberian tigers that are left in the wild (less than 500). Hearing all this makes me smile inside. The next generation of adults is going to be more informed about environmental issues, and I believe that they will make significant changes in the way they care for our planet.
De Salvo is one of my favorite artists. His work manages to balance beauty, concept, craftsmanship, and wit, so I admittedly had high expectations for this new project. Conceptually, the chariots are a fantastic addition to Animal Art, but a couple of aesthetic choices in the piece left me a little disappointed.
First, the chariots are so finely crafted that they appear to be void of human touch in every way except that the animals on the front of the chariots are hand-drawn with a black marker. The tactility of the drawing doesn’t fit with the slickness of the rest of the chariot. And unfortunately using a black marker on canvas doesn’t result in a rich line, which makes the drawings look a little dull.
Second, the painted yellow lines on the floor form what looks like a loopy racetrack. The track looks interesting, and I like the reference to vehicular visual language. But the lines are functionally useless. The chariots aren’t exactly easy to steer, especially for a tiny driver, and navigating the outlined turns is extremely difficult. As I watch kids whiz through the space in patterns that have no relationship to the track, I think about the lines and the chariots as two separate pieces, which is unfortunate since every other aspect of the project feels cohesive and necessary to its overall concept or functionality.
Still, I feel lucky to be able to regularly spend time with de Salvo’s piece. The ambitiousness and complexity of the work makes me want to be a better artist, and seeing how excited kids get when they hop on the chariots is always a real treat.
Information about visiting the New Children’s Museum is available on their website, ThinkPlayCreate.org.