Wide rays of light flow through large paneled glass windows onto a beige canvas structure. The outline of the simple building echoes a child’s crayon drawing of a house—two straight lines jut from the floor and angle 45 degrees to connect at a point in the shape of a triangular roof—more canvas pieces cascade like a river, snaking down from the sides of the edifice and wiggling further across the floor. From afar, the shanty looks almost downy, feathered, like a bird about to take flight. Upon closer inspection, a red line of thread connects each canvas shingle, winding through grommets to pull the disparate pieces of cloth together. This installation is Northern Virginia-based artist Kate Fitzpatrick’s sculptural work, “Canopy.”
Fitzpatrick is featured as part of her George Mason University MFA seminar’s collaborative multimedia installation, Aftermath: Cycles of Rebuilding. The installation is the inaugural exhibition of the newly opened NOVA Alexandria Fine Art Gallery. Her professor, Edgar Endress, is a new media artist and performer, as well as a faculty member at the School of Art at GMU. “He asked if we would, as a class, be interested in creating a show at NOVA over at the Alexandria satellite campus, so we went over and visited the space,” Fitzpatrick said.
Once on site, the class marveled at the building, describing it as a “jewel box” because of the wide windows that allow sunlight to fully illuminate the gallery space. Fitzpatrick explained that the non-traditional feeling of the gallery informed their line of thinking as they zeroed in on a theme for the exhibition. “We didn’t want to do anything traditional, so we came up with the idea of doing an installation.” Influenced by the seemingly endless parade of natural disasters that dominated the news cycle at the start of the school year, the group decided that they would make work around the concept of the “aftermath.” As the natural product of catastrophes, the word evokes the human process of recreating community as well as physical structures damaged from the event.
Describing the group’s approach to curating the show, Fitzpatrick said, “Each artist took a different point of view from what they thought was an important part of the cycle and what went along with their work.” Collaborative pieces involving bicycle parts as well as a human-sized nest made out of book pulp are a few of the materials on display. Fitzpatrick, a painter and multimedia artist, took on the theme of shelter, utilizing materials from a typical hardware store to create her structure. “We view rebuilding as a temporary fix sometimes,” Fitzpatrick said, reflecting on the impermanent nature of the form she created. “We need to think about how we move away from something temporary,” she clarified.
Further delineating her thematic approach to the work, Fitzpatrick explained that her installation, with its snaking red thread, also speaks to the resilience of neighbors, families, and community members in a disaster situation. “I focused on how things shift,” she said, “How people are pulled apart and then held back together, but rebuilding together can help people who have been displaced or dislocated.” That theme of community resilience and ingenuity is evident not only in Fitzpatrick’s work, but in the collaborative nature of the exhibition as a whole.
Although Fitzpatrick’s practice has veered into the realm of the sculptural for this exhibition, in the past she has worked in collage, drawing, and painting to create representational maps. “I moved around a lot growing up, so I’m looking at my dislocation and how that’s affected me,” she explained, drawing a parallel between “Canopy” and the themes of place and displacement that she has explored over the course of her career as an artist.
Engaging the community in creating artwork is an important part of Fitzpatrick’s artistic practice as well. Before returning to get her MFA at George Mason, Fitzpatrick worked as an art teacher at a juvenile detention center in Alexandria. “I was able to work more individually with students and I felt that I was fulfilling a need that needed to be filled,” she said. “There weren’t that many opportunities for students to express themselves or even communicate feelings they were having, so I used art as a way to explore their identities and issues that affected them.” After completing her MFA, Fitzpatrick hopes to continue incorporating community art making and teaching in her process.
This theme of community resilience is referenced in Fitzpatrick’s piece through the bright red thread that connects each canvas shingle of her temporary structure. “The red thread was a color that spoke to me about symbolizing humanity,” she said. Additionally, while conceptualizing her piece, Fitzpatrick spoke to a friend whose family was still in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. “He was telling me there’s no way of contacting their family, so everyone is separated. I guess I was using the red thread as help, to reconnect the structure and reconnect people in this time of rebuilding by not breaking the bloodline of families who have been displaced or dislocated.” She ruminated on the conversation for a minute, then finished, “To me, it’s a reminder of hope, because it’s holding the pieces together that once were very loose canvas shingles and it’s now bound to create a shelter.”
Aftermath: Cycles of Rebuilding will be on display at the NOVA Alexandria Fine Art Gallery through December 17. See more of Kate Fitzpatrick’s work at katesfitzart.com.
Photography by Mike Lesnick