Kate Raudenbush And Her Oasis Of Lyrical Sculpture In Richmond


Nestled within the verdant embrace of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, Incanto: An Oasis of Lyrical Sculpture, a new exhibition by renowned artist Kate Raudenbush, offers a harmonious marriage of art and nature. A culmination of meticulous craftsmanship and imaginative storytelling, the large-scale sculptures intricately meld elements of architecture with the garden’s flourishing flora. Raudenbush, celebrated for her work at Burning Man, has collaborated with poet Sha Michele, infusing each sculpture with a rich tapestry of emotional depth and visual resonance. The exhibition, rooted in themes of transformation and unity, invites visitors on a sensory journey through portals that represent pivotal moments of change.

In this interview, Raudenbush opens up about her creative process, the inspiration behind the exhibition, and the joyous interplay between her sculptures and the surrounding botanical wonders.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
‘Ancestors’ sculpture by Kate Raudenbush, photo by Kate Raundenbush

What was your introduction to Richmond and Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens? Inversely, do you know what their introduction to your work was?

In 2019 Ellyn Parker reached out to me about creating a sculpture show at the garden, since she had been following my artwork at Burning Man and beyond since 2004. She passed the baton to Kristin Thoroman and Beth Anne Booth, the Exhibitions Director at LGBG and she championed and nurtured the development of Incanto with LGBG. 

What was your connection to Sha Michele’s poetry? How was this collaboration set in motion during quarantine 2020? Was it in person conversations or a call and response of ideas shared but separate?  

I’ve known Sha since 2000. We met at the same Burning Man camp, called House of Lotus. I’ve read the poetry she’s shared over the years, and I was always captivated by the emotional depth and visual palette. In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we were locked up in our homes until I was out in the streets protesting injustice. We talked about how everything was clashing and unfolding, and the grand scope of American culture. Through continued shared vulnerability about our lives, I shared my ideas for the Incanto show. Sha was a great sounding board, and through this process, I realized it would be a wonderful experience to have my sculptures be in dialogue with her poetry. I showed her each sculpture design and intention, and she developed a poem in resonance with it.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
‘Source Code’ sculpture by Kate Raudenbush, photo by ©Tom Hennessy 2023

What was the process of making the pieces, was it one work one piece at a time or little bits on each as it went along in phases? Were they made in New York and then transferred here or made here?

My sculptures are very large, architectural, and require a significant amount of engineering and planning. All of the sculptures were first conceptually designed on paper, including all the intricate cut-out designs that began as hand-drawn sketches. This was translated into a 3D model, refined in multiple iterations, and then fabrication drawings were made for building. The sculptures were cut in laser-cut steel, fabricated, welded, and finished in my studio in Brooklyn, as well as at Metalworks Inc. in the Bronx, NY. The sculptures were test-assembled and created to be modular, and shipped in trucks in sections to be assembled on-site.

How large is your team in NY and here in Richmond? How much overlap was there? How long was the installation?

In NYC, our team was comprised of five people in my studio: Osmany Cabrera, Halid Pasalic, Jakob Bokulich, and Greg Kirmser. The professional team at Metalworks, led by Michael Josephs, did an enormous amount of fabrication work. Our lighting engineer, Irwin Morris, is from near Baltimore, Maryland. The heavy equipment specialist, Gary Wilson, whom I’ve worked with for years, flew in from Santa Cruz, CA. The installation specialist, L Stockhausen, helped with the fountain and stair design and came to join the installation from San Francisco, CA. There is so much overlap in my team from building big art at Burning Man; that’s our greatest common denominator and our vibe: the creative community, friendship, and skills forged in Black Rock City. In Richmond, Lisa D’Alessio is the project manager and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Liaison. Michael Kilday was a vital part of the installation team, with connections to Richmond resources when we needed something welded. We had some clutch repair help from Chase Architectural Metals in Richmond for the bronze Breaking Point sculpture spear shafts. The installation of five sculptures took 12 days.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
‘Resonate Passage’ sculpture by Kate Raudenbush, photo by ©Tom Hennessy 2023

What has been memorable in conversations with the gardeners that make plantings based on your creative choices and designs, how did the different gardens and plantings in the areas of each work influence them? 

Not surprisingly, the horticulture team at LGBG is amazing. Our challenge was to find plants that would work conceptually, aesthetically, and with the climate. We discussed the vibe of each sculpture and which plants would match that vibe. I conceived two of the five sculptures to have integrated planters so that nature would play a starring role in the look and feel of the artworks. With the other three, we discussed what shape, color, and vibe of plants would resonate with the intention of the artworks, surrounding them like an energetic container.

I take great joy in the dialogue between art and nature. With Source Code, there is an aerial garden held aloft in the keystone planter at the peak, so they chose a weeping birch tree and cascading passionflower vines that will climb down the angular steel walls of the circuitry blocks and take it over, like nature taking over an architectural ruin of human progress.

For Seed of Self, we designed custom containers at the base that hold climbing vines, which will use the lattice form of the sculpture as a climbing trellis. This quiet little meditation sculpture is an allegory about life and time. I love that the symbolism of the “future” half of the sculpture is surrounded by climbing vines, where nature is beautifully holding your own growth, while simultaneously the structure is supporting nature’s growth. The message of living in the future with a balanced relationship with nature is a deeper message that I hope visitors will resonate with in their own lives.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
Photo by Kate Raundenbush

In the use of symbols of sacred math patterns of nature in contrast and connection with human expression of data and tech transmutation, how does the work of sculpture bridge the infinite and the impermanence of life consciousness in you or the viewer? 

I can’t tell anyone what to feel with my artwork. I can only create the container and set the intention. I think that art can play many roles, but I particularly love it when artists make you think and offer some kind of journey into their soul, providing a pathway for your own felt experience, as if the artwork sets up a vibration and the viewer has the choice to tune into it, kind of like Hilma af Klint’s paintings, James Turrell’s sky rooms, or Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored boxes. What I love about large-scale sculpture is that it occupies so much three-dimensional space that it gives you an opportunity to be enveloped by it, to step into its world. So, if that is the case, what can the artist do with this opportunity? In the case of Incanto, I wanted to explore personal themes that arose during the transformational times of the pandemic and create a healing journey for myself that could ultimately be shared. I used the motif of a transitional portal to illustrate each concept and welcome people into it.

How important to your process is interaction with a viewer to your work, or similarly to an app does a viewer become a user of a sculpture? 

Both in life and in art, you cannot escape the relationship of observer and observed. From the beginning of my sculptural experiments, I have always felt the creative potential of that relationship. (My very first sculpture in 2004 is actually called Observer/Observed.)

At Burning Man, participatory, immersive, interactive art is the primary expression. Even if I’m making the artwork as a personal expression, or as an allegorical expression of an idea in dialogue with one of the annual art themes of Burning Man, like Evolution, American Dream, Metropolis, or Hope and Fear, in the back of my mind, I think, “How can I make a concept that you can immerse yourself into, like walking into the physical embodiment of a question?” And I think if you create an artwork with an intention, and then create a form that holds a clear allegorical story or question, any viewer that is engaged with the work’s intention can feel it too. In that way, the artwork is a container and a conduit for ideas, but also personal experience, connection, transformation, release, even ritual.

Of course, a conduit exists with or without interaction, but engagement shifts the energy from potential to kinetic. Whether or not an artwork shifts consciousness depends on the level of openness and/or understanding that you bring to it. Very much like life, it meets your consciousness where you are at and opens up perceptions when you are actively seeking to receive, understand, and evolve.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
Photo by ©Tom Hennessy 2023

Contrasting from the do not touch world of museums to the play and explore work of the Playa how does that show up in your process here or other installations? 

I approach my art the way one must approach public art. Public art always needs to be strong and built to withstand weather, animals, kids, and vandals. Public art involves mitigating the risks to the artwork, engineering, and building for longevity and safety. It’s a dance between beauty and strength.

What was one of the first allegories you heard or understood that made the notion of culture creativity tradition something you knew would be your life work in sharing Art as Allegory?

From a very young age, I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, and how we humans explain our existence through the conduit of storytelling and the power of symbolism on one’s journey.

One of my earliest creative experiences happened when the wonderful set and costume designer, Desmond Heely, asked me (a very impressionable and irrepressible 9-year-old) to paint a doorbell by the entrance of the main doorway on the theatrical set of “Arms and the Man” (by George Bernard Shaw, at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Canada). He explained to me that the doorway was a portal to a pivotal moment in the play, so I was very serious and excited to be given this tiny creative task. At the friends-and-family-invited dress rehearsal performance, the pivotal moment came and the doorbell was rung. I stood up in the audience and announced, “I painted that!” and I’ve been obsessed with the active symbolism of transformational thresholds ever since.

Kate Raudenbush Interview Incanto 2
Photo by ©Tom Hennessy 2023

What line does humor and social commentary play into the construction of the large scale work, how does satire off of human habits impact the monumental? 

I don’t think any of my work is intended to be seen as satirical. Some of the works like Source Code portend an unsustainable human/technological evolution. That’s dead serious. 

Any thoughts on the Incanto Evening of Fire and the opening weekend events with the release of the installation to the public and garden guests?

It was amazing to see a confluence of culture and creative community that has its roots in Burning Man. Burning Man is very much an awakening for the creator in everyone, and the urge to share that inner fire with others to create even more. I always love the magic that happens when that irrepressible vibe interfaces with the default world. It is said that fire is the only element that doesn’t lose its own energy when it is shared. Creative culture is a transformational fire that is the lifeblood of any city. Art makes everything better.

You can give Kate Raudenbish a follow @kateraudenbush
Follow the official Incanto, An Oasis of Lyrical Sculpture at @incantoexhibit

Todd Raviotta

Todd Raviotta

Artist in many forms. Sharing love for cutting things up as editor and fine art collage media mixer, love of music as a DJ, and love of light in photography and video. Educator of Film Studies and Video Production for over two decades. Long time RVAmag contributor and collaborator.

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