Dana Lynn Harper uses the power of play and experimentation to create immersive installations that transform space and state of mind. Leaning into her distaste for rules, she unleashes her creativity by breaking barriers and using non-traditional materials. Harper’s installation pieces are rooted in sculpture, influenced by her time earning an MFA in Sculpture at Pennsylvania State University. Now based in Columbus, Ohio, the artist not only uses sculpture as a means of constructing and building her breathtaking installations, but she uses it as a mode of mark making. In many of her works, an element or shape is beautifully repeated, creating a remarkable mesmerizing affect that, in a way, is not unlike painting. Instead of making a mark with paint, Harper makes her marks with neon tape or polymer clay. For the artist, her work is undefined and sees sculpture “as a spirit” that implies a human-like element.
Join us in conversation as Harper generously and openly shares with us the life events that have shaped her as well as how anxiety can fuel her practice. The talented artist also offers helpful tips, thoughts, and advice on what to think about when creating installation art as well as the challenges that may arise.
When did you start creating your complex and beautiful installations? How do you go about designing/planning your immersive environments?
I didn’t make my first installation until my second year of graduate school. Bloom Bloom was my thesis exhibition and my first large scale work. I wasn’t traditionally trained in sculpture; my BFA is in Art & Technology, so I think the way I approach installation avoids structure. I’m not usually thinking about form or composition until I understand how the material will create it. Material manipulation inspires and often directs my installation works—sometimes it’s the color, the iridescent nature, the texture or the malleability. I enjoy looking for new things to work with. Before COVID, I was visiting thrift stores, hardware stores, and craft stores. I love to collect interesting objects and materials; sometimes I return to a material years later.
I play a lot. I experiment with how a material can be changed, attached, or joined to create a cloud, cluster, or malleable surface. Through play, I develop a process. It’s often a repeated action on a material such as tying, cutting, or laminating. My goal is to maintain the elements that I liked about the material originally and transform it enough to create a separation from the utility or intended purpose.
Discovering and inventing that process is the hardest part. It’s definitely fun and playful, but it can be frustrating. It’s something that can’t be rushed or sped through. After the process has been discovered, I begin applying that transformation to the material. A series of actions are taken to the material hundreds of times to create a texture or pattern. This is where I get lost in the process. I become obsessed with fabrication, with the accumulation of the same shape, the same mark. Making large installations gives me a place to channel my anxiety. It keeps my hands busy. After a certain amount has been produced, I experiment in my studio. I hang the work from my studio ceiling to understand how the work functions in space and what adjustments could be made to make the installation process smoother.
The final composition of the work isn’t completely understood until it’s hung in a gallery. I like leaving the work open for change, up until the very end. Having pieces that can twist and change is comforting for me because nothing has to be final.
Some of your installation works seem to include elements that are very sculptural, such as Auroral Confetti, which includes suspended whimsical clay shapes. Can you tell me about your background in sculpture and how it has influenced your installation work?
My MFA is in sculpture, and I still think of myself as a sculptor even though I primarily make installation works. I use sculpture in my work because it feels like personification to me. In Auroral Confetti or in Field Guides, I see each sculpture as a “mark,” in the same way that I see each piece of flagging tape in Bloom Bloom as a mark. The marks used to create Auroral Confetti and Field Guides are all individual beings and vary more than in most of my installations. In these works, each mark is seen as a body or a character. The group of objects are a composition of individuals whose uniqueness is important. Whereas in other works, like Bloom Bloom or Cosmic Glimmer, the individual marks are not necessarily seen as their own being, but instead as a piece of a massive texture or pattern. I go from micro to macro all the time, as I’m concerned with the infinite universe beyond comprehension while also mesmerized by the beautiful complexity of individual beings. The installations that are groups of objects or sculptures are inspired by community and the preciousness I see in people. The mark becomes representative of a person. I see all the detailed bits in Auroral Confetti as visualizations of attributes that make a human special. This is also carried over in my latest installation, Field Guides. I see each sculpture as a spirit. I use sculpture to imply the figure, to personify and humanize the work.
What materials do you use in your installations?
I’m always searching for new things to work with. I don’t like traditional materials very much. I don’t like rules. I like when there’s no defined way to use a material; this opens me up to experimentation. When I know a material’s history and relationship to art, such as paint or plaster, it’s hard for me to move past all of these known ways of building with these mediums. I would rather have something that isn’t traditionally used for art. Not understanding how the material can function in an art process gives me space to feel unbound. Materials I’ve really enjoyed are flagging tape, polymer clay, resin, iridescent window film, vinyl, mylar, and neon tapes. Right now, I’m most interested in how a material deals with light and movement.
I’m always looking for new materials to use. Sometimes I find things at thrift stores. A material will catch my eye and I’ll take it back to the studio and research it to figure out where I might be able to purchase it. Going to graduate school in a more remote location than where I grew up opened me up to finding things online. Then, attending residencies, where I’m unfamiliar with what supplies might be available, has also pushed me to search online.
What do you find the most challenging about installation work compared to more ‘traditional’ forms of art making?
The biggest challenge is all the logical and practical things, like storing the work, installing it, and shipping it. Those things cost way more with installation works. Installations are also much harder to sell. Every artist who works in installation or large sculptural pieces, or even large paintings, has to fight that practical voice in their brain. For me personally, the greatest challenge is asking for help and being ok with receiving it. As my work gets larger, or if I have to hang more than one installation at a time, I have to rely on other people to help me. I see my process as a window or vantage point where I can understand myself. Installation has amplified parts of myself that I don’t necessarily like. It holds a magnifying glass to those bits and pieces. And one of those things is that I don’t enjoy asking for help or needing help. It makes me feel like a burden, even when the gallery staff is paid to be there. So installation has forced me to deal with this part of myself. This is really hard for me, and it has been an adjustment that I’m still getting used to. But ultimately, it has strengthened my ability to communicate and step back. And in stepping back, I have significantly reduced my stress.
What experience and/or emotions are you trying to invoke in your viewers?
In a recent interview, Dan Shellenbarger of The Ohio Channel asked me, “Why is art important?” and after some beating around the bush, I came to the words joy and pleasure.
Can you tell me about a turning point in your career, or an event that allowed you to reevaluate or alter your practice?
I think everything affects my work; I’m a culmination of experiences, and it’s all reflected back in different ways. My dad died on December 5, 2018 and my first boyfriend and family friend died on December 4, 2018. They died one day apart from each other. And that catastrophic grief and forever-altering perspective shift led me to a fascination with death and the human spirit. Since their deaths, I have been incorporating more reflective materials. I have been thinking more about what exists beyond our understanding, the unseen energy and magic all around us.
Taking care of my father in his last months of life and being there during his passing has greatly affected me. But it’s hard to know, even three years later, what specifically has changed because I’m still evolving and recovering from that experience. His death solidified how I want to walk in this world, and it is very much modeled after him. I admire him for his easiness, his ability to stay calm in chaos, and his constant search for knowledge and expansion of his own understanding of this world. I’ve started to shed this former idea of success and let go of the concept of “accomplishment.” I’m more focused on what my work is telling me about myself and listening to my intuition even when it doesn’t make the most sense. What I care about most is maintaining the best environment for me to create. And that means not only the studio, but also my mind, my spirit, and my body. I’m thinking more about self-care and it’s relationship to creativity.
So much of creating installations relies on access to space and often transforms depending on the space itself. Are your installations site-specific? Has your access to space been altered drastically due to COVID-19?
I don’t see my work as site-specific; they’re made to hang in many spaces. The pieces are so time-consuming that I’m often thinking about how they can be rearranged in different environments. I didn’t have as many gallery shows this year as I have had in the past. Still, I did get to work on public outdoor installations, and that was an exciting experience. I created a work on the lawn of The Columbus Museum of Art: Dwelling Pool. Flickering Fence was an installation hung close to The Ohio State University Campus in the University District. I was also a part of a mural initiative to create mural cubes for medical centers in Columbus, Ohio.
COVID-19 has affected me the most in terms of residencies. I was supposed to attend The Vermont Studio Center last fall. I use residencies to focus on producing my next installation work. I usually do at least two residencies a year, and that’s been difficult for me. But I’ve also still been able to produce, which I’m very grateful for. Quarantine has left me asking, “What can I do here in this space?” Rather than projecting out into the future of residencies, dreaming of what can be created in large studios and different facilities, I’ve cleaned my studio and made more of a home here. I’m somehow ok; I’m somehow still producing. And I think it’s because my process comes from an anxious place, so having more anxiety, more loneliness hasn’t killed my ability to create, but it has made more ups and downs and definitely more questions about purpose and meaning, which I don’t have all the answers to.
What advice would you give artists that desire to begin working in large-scale, installation form? What elements of the process would you urge them to consider?
I think installation is created in two different mental states. It’s going back and forth between them that allows for great installation work. I would encourage artists to play more, experiment more. My best ideas feel like they come from nowhere, but it’s really from a place of unplanned play. This allows the material to guide you a little bit. It allows for accidents to happen. I think it’s important to leave the door open for the unexpected. It’s vital to have those pure-play states where there is no perceived or expected outcome. But then it’s also just as essential to enter a more conscious state of editing, pulling back, and planning. Every once in a while, it’s important to examine how the work will be taken apart, how will it travel? I think considering these questions throughout the process can save you a lot of heartache in the end. Moving between these two mental states allows me to discover methods and practices I may have never stumbled upon, while also maintaining structural and practical components of the work.
Do you have anything coming up that you would like to share?
I’m excited to announce that I have a solo exhibition with Sculpture Center in Cleveland, OH in 2022.