7. November 2016
Although Sky Stage is a temporary resident – in place from September 2016 to July 2017 – it makes a large impact through its transformation of a historical shell and its provision for all types of community-driven events. Spearheaded by artist Heather Clark, Sky Stage is part art, part architecture, and an invitation to creatively consider old or neglected structures. The artist answered a few questions about the public art project.
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
Sky Stage is unusual in that there was no RFP, competition, commissioner, or client. It was initiated and fully executed by myself, the artist. This property was boarded up for six years after a major fire. I approached the owner, Rusty Hauver of the General Engineering Company, about creating a large-scale public work in the space. He was thrilled with the idea of a new life for his space and he agreed to donate use of the space for a one year. I then fundraised for the project. In the end, a number of local contractors donated their time to build Sky Stage and we received material donations from both local and national suppliers. We also received support from Burning Man Global Arts Fund and a number of local foundations and companies.
Please provide an overview of the project.
Sky Stage temporarily transforms a boarded property in Frederick, Maryland’s downtown historic district into an interactive building-scale public art work.
This pre-Revolutionary War building was damaged by a major fire in 2010 and has no roof. The plywood boards on the doors and windows have been removed to reveal a center for arts and culture. Framed by historic stone walls, Sky Stage’s open-air theater seats an audience of 140 people among trees.
The centerpiece of Sky Stage is a digitally-designed two story sculpture with ribbons of drought-resistant plants that twist and wind through a wooden lattice and the building’s doors and windows. State of the art green roof technology has been modified to support the spiraling plants. Rainwater is collected from an adjacent roof and stored in a cistern to irrigate the plants and trees.
Artist Heather Clark collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Structures research group who computationally designed and engineered the sculpture’s complex wooden lattice with custom geometry-generating algorithms. Professor Caitlin Mueller and Research Fellow Kam-Ming Mark Tam led the engineering effort.
Frederick Arts Council is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the theater in partnership with AmeriCorps. Together, they are facilitating local residents and community groups to run creative endeavors within the historic shell. Working with the public, Sky Stage offers drama, music, children’s story time, art classes, dance, history, literature, and film.
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the project?
My intention was for the artwork to be both: 1) the transformation of an underutilized building; and 2) the community activation of the space with performances and other creative community endeavors. I was influenced by Assemble Studio in the UK and their hand-made approach to transforming underutilized spaces like gas stations and highway underpasses. I was also influenced by artist Matthew Mazzotta and his piece Open House, in which he disassembled an abandoned house and reassembled it into a folding open air theater, and his piece Storefront Theater, where bleacher seating folds out of an abandoned building façade. I collaborated with Matthew Mazzotta ten years ago on the Busycle project and have been inspired by his approach to art making ever since.
How does the design respond to the unique qualities of the site?
This building was constructed by hand before the American Revolution. The stone was quarried from the property. In the alley adjacent to the building, the quarry’s original stone vein is still visible. Much of the beauty of the remaining building shell comes from the stonework and its irregularity and the building’s decay.
As an artist, my artwork typically explores the opposite of how this building came to be. In my sculpture, I generally dissect contemporary American culture and our tendency to over-consume, over-build, over-groom, etc. in lieu of direct physical exertion to ensure survival. Today our actions are a grossly amplified, because one gallon of gasoline equals five hundred hours of human work output. Within this culture, we have created an industrially generated vernacular, whose regularity can create the uncomfortable experience of an uncanny valley, a stark contrast to this pre-industrial building shell. It is with this eye that I approached the design for Sky Stage.
In re-inventing the use of this stone shell, I created a design approach that juxtaposed the pre-industrial building. The sculpture’s complex scaffold-like wooden sculpture is computationally designed and engineered with custom geometry-generating algorithms. While digitally designed, the sculpture shares a commonality with the stone building – the sculpture is obsessively handmade. The result of the computer generation was that myself and a small team of carpenters had to hand cut and connect 6,500 pieces of wood. Finally, I took advantage of a direct view to the sky and wove a double helix spiral of living ribbons through this hand construction.
I then chose to further celebrate the handmade, by making Sky Stage a place where the public is invited to create, rather than just consume. The sculpture grows into bleacher seating for an audience of 140. The Frederick Arts Council and AmeriCorps are working with neighbors and the community to help them organize their own performances, readings, pop-up art shows, and other creative endeavors in the space.
Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?
Sky Stage evolved from my background in green development and ecology. I use art, architecture and public interventions to catalyze built environments that power themselves, cleanse themselves, transform waste, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, and deeply satisfy inhabitants. As founder of Biome Studio, art is my tool to shift the paradigm of everyday life. Attempting to lead the path toward zero-energy buildings and neighborhoods, I have overseen the largest deep energy retrofit in the U.S., converted historic mills into green affordable housing, and installed over one megawatt of solar PV on 2,300 low-income apartments. I am hopeful that my background in green building, historic preservation, community organizing and art making is strongly reflected in the Sky Stage design.
What products or materials have contributed to the success of the completed project?
To create the living ramps, I consulted with Furbish Co., a green roof expert. The ramps were especially challenging, because their steep slope would not support soil and the team was concerned that the vegetation could slip off the slopes. To solve this problem, we first constructed exterior grade plywood ramps. Next, we adhered Grace Ice and Water Shield directly to the plywood to prevent water damage and installed a 1.5” layer of mineral wool on top. The mineral wool stores water in the system, like a sponge, and supports root growth. Drip irrigation was installed by Fountainhead Irrigation directly on top of the mineral wool. This drip irrigation connects to a 400 gallon rain water cistern from Site One that stores water from the roof of a neighboring building. A drought resistant sedum blanket from Moerings Semper Green is the living material.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Frederick Arts Council
Heather Clark, Biome Studio
Professor Caitlin Mueller and Research Fellow Kam-Ming Mark Tam, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Structures research group
Furbish Co. (green roof designer for living ramps)
Anthony Owens Remodeling and Repair
Metal Work Contractor
Drip Irrigation and Rainwater System (design and installation)
Cory Vinyard, David Andrew Snyder, Luc Fiedler, Peter Wechsler, Chris VanDoren, Peter Stockmaster, Maya Ragazzo, Besan Z. Khamis
Sculpture wood: Douglas Fir
Bleacher wood: spf wood donated from 84 Lumber
Drought resistant sedum blankets: Moerings Semper Green
Sign: Rusty Marquee
400-gallon rain barrel: Site One
Drip irrigation system: Fountainhead Irrigation
Cable rail on bleachers: Cable Concepts
Water proofing for living ribbons: Grace Ice and Water Shield GCP Applied Technologies
Theater lighting: Parlights
Trusses for the bleacher structure: Shelter System
4,500 square feet
Building (2,184 square feet)
Sculpture (25'6" tall X 41'10" long x 22'5" deep)