By Karen Valby | August 14, 2015 | People
In our inaugural celebration of emerging artistic talent, we reveal the visionary who helped elevate public art in Austin with “Thirst” and now is dazzling the world with luminous, thoughtful installations.
After almost two years, it’s an image that many Austinites vividly remember: a ghostly white tree hovering mournfully over Lady Bird Lake. It appeared at once to have risen from the water and drifted down from the heavens—a haunting memorial to the 300 million trees lost to the devastating Texas drought in 2011. Austinites were stilled by the sight of the painted elm that hung suspended over the water for three months in the fall of 2013. Joggers and bikers would pause as if to pay respect, solemn yogis practiced in front of it, and at the end of long nights groups of friends sought out a moment of silence in her shadow.
“Thirst,” a collaborative public art project by Women & Their Work Gallery—dreamed up and executed by visual artist Beili Liu, architects Emily Little and Norma Yancey, and landscape architect Cassie Bergstrom—was perhaps Austin’s finest moment of demonstrating the beauty and reach of public art. “You could experience it from the bridge and from the trail; it was truly in the public space,” says Louis Grachos, who had just taken the helm of The Contemporary Austin before the installation was put on display. “Witnessing the success and embrace of ‘Thirst’ really warmed the heart and reinforced my own excitement for art in public places in Austin.”
Now two years later, Austin-based Liu is preparing another public art installation that will launch in San Francisco later this summer. She works out of a bright 750-square-foot studio that her husband, Blue Way, an accomplished woodworker (and the chief installer of his wife’s exhibits), built for her behind their University Hills home in East Austin. On the studio’s screened porch, surrounded peacefully by trees, a nearby creek, and the comforting chatter of their six chickens, Liu describes how a girl born in a rural farming village in China would years later fnd herself the toast of Austin’s emerging art scene.
“As a child, my toys were sticks and mud and rocks; I’d run to the river to try to catch fish or go to the feld to get flowers,” says Liu, now 40, whose parents had been exiled as teenagers to village life as part of the “lost generation” during China’s Cultural Revolution. “It was a very tactile, free kind of existence. I think the reason I’ve always been so attracted to material and space had to start in that very early time.”
Liu moved to America to pursue an undergraduate degree in graphic design at the University of Tennessee. She figured it would soothe her lust for an artistic life while still providing her with marketable skills. In Tennessee she discovered Chinese installation artist Xu Bing’s Book From the Sky. “And I thought, Oh wow, you can make art in space. I had been drawing, painting, and doing some sculpture work, and I remember saying, ‘I’d love to leap into space.’” In the MFA program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Liu began playing with everyday materials like thread, paper, incense, wood, salt, and graphite to compose installation pieces that seem somehow effortless and exacting... weightless and profound.
Liu and her husband moved to Austin seven years ago when the University of Texas offered her an assistant professorship. (She received tenure and became an associate professor in 2011 and in 2012 earned UT’s Regents Outstanding Teaching Award.) Liu’s triumphant shows have included installations like “Lure” in San Francisco, part of her ongoing “Red Thread Legend Series,” a moving riff on a Chinese legend that suggests we’re each connected to our destined partner by a red thread. “I coiled and stitched the threads so that some foated alone, and some crossed and tangled,” she says of the nine months of her painstaking labor for “Lure,” just before she came to UT. “Once [you] enter that zone, your mind goes away, and your hands become this very intuitive thing.”
Another turning point also came in 2011, when she received an invitation for an exhibit by Austin’s Women & Their Work, the nationally recognized gallery founded in 1978 to support female artists. Eager to return to material most associated with the domestic sphere and to confront the idea of women’s work, Liu pitched “The Mending Project,” an installation and performance project. Remembers Lisa Choinacky, a former project coordinator at Women & Their Work: “She came in and said, ‘I have this idea. I want to hang 1,500 pairs of scissors from the ceiling pointing down.’ And all I could think was, Yes!”
Several years later, Women & Their Work returned to her with an invitation to collaborate with Little, Yancey, and Bergstrom on a community-minded public art project in response to the theme of water. Liu, after researching just how devastating the recent drought had been on Texas, imagined the tree. “I went back to the team and said, ‘I want to put out this crazy idea. It’s not doable —it’ll be way too expensive and diffcult, but it would be wonderful to have this ghostly tree that’s been killed by the drought placed somewhere prominent in the city.”
Rather than being daunted by her grand vision—Choinacky remembers again wanting to shout, despite all the practical reasons against it, “Yes!”— Women & Their Work and the team spent months lobbying various outfits of the city, from the Austin Rowing Club and the Parks and Recreation Department to The Trail Foundation of Austin and the Austin Police Department. Mountains of paperwork and permits—and one new address just for the exhibit, 1329 ½ Riverside Drive—later, the team set about installing a 38-foot cedar elm (a Texas native) above the water and hanging 14,000 prayer flags in the trees’ honor along the two miles of the trail around Lady Bird Lake. While the rest of the team suffered through two sleepless nights of torrential rain shortly after the September installment, Liu says she slept soundly, secure in the knowledge that their tree would weather the storms. The total cost of the installation was roughly $120,000, Choinacky estimates; it was partially supported by a $50,000 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artistic and Collaboration Grant awarded to the Women & Their Work gallery and by private donations.
Besides being a monumental professional moment in Liu’s career, there was something deeply personal about being so engrossed in this work. Liu, a stepmother to one daughter, discovered she was pregnant with her first child early on in the work’s process. “That can be a really scary time for a creative woman,” she remembers. “It’s such a wonderful thing, but you also fear it’s going to take over your life. Without ‘Thirst’ I wouldn’t have known what to do. I was so happy to be working really hard, running up and down with my camera and tripod with my big belly.” She gave birth to daughter Cyan within mere weeks of the fi nal installation. The team nicknamed her little girl “The Thirst Baby.”
Despite whatever fears Liu had about life holding space for her to be both mother and artist, she has never been busier. Her third solo show in Texas, “Stratus,” captivated attendees at the Grace Museum in Abilene the first four months of this year. The exhibit, featuring about 800 clear Mylar sheets, each dipped in graphite-infused wax and hanging a few inches below the ceiling, continued the conversation Liu started with “Thirst” about the state’s water crisis. Named after the low-level cloud bursting with the promise of rain, it takes a more hopeful direction, though. Says Liu: “It’s more abstract; it’s a more poetic view of looking at the topic again.”
In May, Liu, Blue, and Cyan traveled to Italy for a show in Como, and then it was on to a UT summer teaching assignment in Tuscany. In late July, they will go to San Francisco for the installation of a piece tentatively called The Sky Bridge. She plans on transforming a little-used pedestrian bridge into a riverlike pathway that connects Chinatown to the Chinese Culture Foundation within the Hilton Hotel by affi xing pieces of silver Mylar onto nearly 50,000 brick faces. “People will walk on it, and they’ll see their reflection,” she says. “So then the bridge becomes a river with this rhythmic kind of energy.” And then there’s a solo show in Norway next summer to start preparing for, and already offers for summer 2017 for Liu to consider.
“I’ve grown so much since I’ve moved here,” says Liu. “Without Austin I wouldn’t have had ‘Thirst’ or ‘The Mending Project.’ UT has provided me with so much support that I’ve been able to travel all over the world.” But there is still room for growth in her adopted city. “I’m so proud of the East Austin Studio Tour [the two-weekend event each November features hundreds of artists] and what places like The Contemporary are doing now,” she says. “But we need more support; we need more galleries. Imagine how wonderful it would be if our visual arts scene could catch up to our music scene.”
There’s always more work to do. “My head is in the future,” says Liu, with a content smile. “As artists we are always trying to find what we’re doing next. But ‘Thirst’ was the project of a lifetime. It was a gift for me, it was a gift for the team, and it was a gift for the city. I feel like it’s something I’ll still think about when I’m 85, sitting with Blue. ‘Do you remember that time we the did the tree in the lake?’”
Photography by Ben Sklar; beili liu Studio (thirSt). hair and makeup by roar Salon (hair: erica rae; makeup: laura martinez)