CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: A review of one dynamic duo and the inquiries they provoke through art

The sounds of metals clamoring, nails drilling, and cargos moving, filled the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in room 132 of the Art Building. It was an unusual party for Assistant Professors Amie McNeel and Mark Zirpel.

There was an air of sadness in the midst of all the joking, cursing, and laughing exchanged between the two assistant professors. They were dismantling their exhibit, which was put together as part of a requirement of a tenure promotion.

“It’s going into storage [and] my job is to protect it until it has another opportunity,” McNeel said. “The drag with that for me is… hopefully enough people see it. People seeing the work is super important. Once it’s down, it’s hard to promote it.”

The exhibit brought together two faculty members of 3D4M (3-Dimensional Forum), a consortium within the School of Art that manipulates ceramics, glass, and sculpture to create art.

McNeel has been teaching at the University of Washington for nearly seven years, while Zirpel has taught at the school for six years. She has a tomboyish slouch about her that says: Yeah I’m an artist, I teach, and I can pull off thick leather belts too. He, on the other hand, presents a more Socratic, or even sagacious, vibe.

“We’re both working artists, and we teach,” Zirpel said. “We walk our talk; we do what we say, and I think we both believe that the best way to teach is to create art.”

Zirpel and Amie have worked together extensively, and they have grown very familiar with each other over the past few years. Their fellowship began in the early 2000s when the 3D4M needed a desperate reboot. Just like any professional relationship, their initial encounter was uncertain. However, what could have been useless politics over space issues, ended up to be a lifelong partnership between two very driven and creative individuals. Their collaborative efforts have sometimes led them to night outs at the Ceramics and Metal Arts Building.

“Mark has made breakfast for me, making tortillas on the grill outside the CMA. He’s [even] woken me off my dog bed,” McNeel said.

There is a saying that every artist paints himself. This axiom applies to Amie and Zirpel, but that alone is too reductive. Their sculptures not only reflect their so-called styles, but they also represent their philosophies regarding life, society, and the universe.

The task of understanding an artist by analyzing abstract objects, especially artifacts from the contemporary period, is not a walk in the park—these works by Amie and Zirpel are no exceptions. In fact, one can even feel intimidated just by entering an art gallery adorned with such curious paraphernalia. However, what audience needs to understand is that Amie’s and Zirpel’s didactic motives are never far from their desires to produce.

“The best teaching happens after class, when we turn into the makers,” McNeel said.

The freedom to interpret sculptures is far more intriguing than persuading or encumbering viewers with a specific set of concepts conceived by the creator, she said.

“As a teacher I really like students to have the opportunity to invent things first and then imagine what they think something might mean,” McNeel said. “So it’s really indicative to how and what’s important to them.”

BOBBING HEADS: McNeel's Tornado Buoys contain both chaos and power.
BOBBING HEADS: McNeel’s Tornado Buoys contain both chaos and power.

So each observer is their own worst critic. McNeel can be seen on the other side of the imaginative spectrum, extending her hand to the spectators. All one has to do, is employ his or her creative faculties and set course toward the abyss—there are no freebies in this realm. The journey promises a plethora of self-discovery and surprises. Guiding each art critic toward the halfway mark of appreciation are McNeel’s bobbing beacons, buoys, and lures.

All of them are alive. Some of them are holding the chaotic energy of a tornado, captured by glass capsules. It is a wonder that the master architect was able to bless these giant steel-forged technologies with the purpose to enlighten her by passers both in the material and immaterial worlds.

“They’re about illuminating a little moment in that vast sea of darkness or whatever. I think that notion… alluding to… instruments that help you find your place in this vast place or in this night sky is super important,” McNeel said. “The designs that I am interested in are telescopes and microscopes. And then cultural influences are ones that start to overlap how we perceive the world… like maps—how we envision the world around us and how we invent ways of explaining that and sharing that.”

During her undergraduate years at Central Michigan University as a marine biology student, McNeel was aboard the Regina Maris, a sailing vessel, photographing dolphins, dorsal fins, and other exotic creatures in the oceans of the Dominican Republic. Her encounter with a humpback whale in those clear azure waters was life changing, she said. Peering through its great big black eyes was like examining her own life through the organic lens of a humpback whale. Who knows what she was thinking at that exact moment as she leaned toward that beast? Perhaps something existential.

“Wasn’t the world going to end quite a few times before now?” McNeel said. “I think every day there is urgency; every day there is a need. Whether it’s environmental, whether it’s social, in terms of how we treat each other, whether it’s political. I think there are things that we can do that will make a positive, constructive difference for us as a whole, and us personally.”

LET THERE BE LIGHT: Mark Zirpel’s galvanized steel dome observatory is an excellent place to meditate on one’s place in life.

This idea of scale and orientation crosses over to Mark Zirpel’s “observatories.” From the Puget Sound, audiences are transported into the heavens.

The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that seeking truth is the ultimate criterion in life, and Zirpel mirrors that exact the notion of inquiry through his interactive artworks. The man has piercing green eyes and exudes a sort of Newtonian sensibility. Similar to Socrates and Sir Isaac Newton, Zirpel aims to seek truth. Except, Zirpel’s medium is glass and metal.

“We experience some notion of reality from this point inside our head, and then it extends out to my body, then you, the space around you… to the world, the moon, and on and on to infinity,” Zirpel said.

The realities that Zirpel was talking about include the images students or working men and women think of when they first wake up. To what radio channels do they listen? What movies or television shows do people watch? All of these human constructs are internalized by the consumers and as a result, these so-called realities become an eerie example of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Culture will provide all sorts of suggestions—in the lightest way to put it—about how to behave, what to believe in, what to aspire to, how much money to have, how big a car to have, [and] all these kinds of stuff,” Zirpel said.

These external forces can make people’s lives convenient for the most aspects, but they can also prevent them from realizing their full potential. These specific options or roles in society not only force individuals to a state of conformity, but they also limit possibilities. For artists, this is a problematic suggestion, he said.

Inside Zirpel’s galvanized steel dome, there is a mechanic fan that one has to hand crank. The dome is so big (19 feet in diameter) that it occupies half of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Once the fan gathers enough momentum, the wind carries over to another contraption made up of gears and various other bicycle parts. The force of the air spins the orrery that is on top of the machine. There, as the light buzzes through the oculus, revealing the vault’s belly, one is left, alone, to meditate on the diminutive existence of humankind. If humans are but a tiny speck in the universe, how much smaller and more insignificant are their interests? What about their ambitions; their frustrations; and all their internal conflicts that make them who they are?

“In many parts of life there are dangers,” Zirpel said. “In glass, [it] looks dangerous; there is all this fire and furnaces, and high voltage and temperatures, and all this kinds of stuff. But I am more scared by the dangers presented by… following someone else’s trajectory rather than your own. Being creative is healthy.

UP, UP AND AWAY: Zirpel's wooden blimp transports visitors' contemplation as high as the skies.
UP, UP AND AWAY: Zirpel’s wooden blimp delivers visitors’ contemplation as high as the skies.

This story was originally published by The Daily of the University of Washington.

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