On May 14, 2006, artist Jonathan Borofsky (A’64) visited Carnegie Mellon University to assist with the campus installation of his sculpture Walking to the Sky. Some say contemporary artists are modern philosophers of our day, creating art that challenges us to ask meaningful questions about our lives. Borofsky is one such artist. He is deep, thoughtful and willing to teach and be taught about the world in which we live. Borofsky relishes the art of invention.
Through his work, he attempts to achieve a personal balance by understanding his own feelings, as well as the feelings of others. In one way, Borofsky’s Walking To The Sky seems to illustrate this balancing act, with seven realistically sculpted men, women and children striding up a 100-foot tall stainless steel pole—apparently walking into the sky—with three figures standing on the ground watching the “event” from below. Located near Forbes Avenue, Walking To The Sky was commissioned by Peter Kraus and Carnegie Mellon Trustee Jill Gansman Kraus. The sculpture has inspired a rousing conversation at Carnegie Mellon about the role of public art on campus.
Eric Sloss, associate director of media relations for Carnegie Mellon’s College of Fine Arts, conducted the following interview with Borofsky during the installation of Walking to the Sky.
ES: Let’s start with your upbringing. How did you begin following a path towards art?
JB: Since both of my parents were in the arts—my mother was an architect, and my father a musician—my interest in painting was reinforced at an early age. When I was around 8 years old, I started taking painting lessons from a professional artist who lived just outside of Boston. He was a refugee from the Holocaust and he set up a studio in his tiny Brookline apartment living room with two other young people like myself as his students. I can still remember the smell of oil paint and turpentine in this little apartment. As students, he gave us a lot of freedom to explore our creativity. I remember him saying, “If you know what you want to paint, go ahead and paint it—if you don’t, then grab a magazine and find a picture that you want to copy.” Well, I knew what I wanted to paint. I liked the abstract landscapes that my teacher was painting, as well as much of the abstract work that my mother was doing. So, it was great to have the freedom to jump right into this abstract work at an early age.
ES: How was that an influence on you as a young artist going into college?
JB: When it came time to apply to college, it was obvious to me that I wanted to follow an art career—preferably painting. My parents suggested that maybe I should learn a trade as well, in case the painting thing didn’t work out. Besides painting, I liked designing objects for industry, like cars, chairs, etc.. So, we began looking around for schools that had industrial design departments along with painting departments, and naturally, Carnegie Mellon came up as one possibility. My high school grades were very average, as well as my board scores, but I had twenty or thirty serious oil paintings on stretched canvas—quite advanced for a 16-year old—and I took several of those to my interview with the dean of the College of Fine Arts at that time. Obviously, having been trained at a young age in the fine arts field balanced my average grades and helped me to get into the school.
As a freshman, I took the core classes, and as a sophomore I followed my plan and went into industrial design. However, I found the courses to be too confining for my tastes, and I was really missing my focus on painting. I remember speaking to my industrial design professor, and telling him that I really liked the new sculpture classes I was being exposed to and that I wasn’t too fond of the industrial design curriculum. I enjoyed making abstract forms with clay—it was water based and soft—and then I was introduced to welding, which was the opposite of clay. It was very structural, and it felt good to create 3-dimensional forms that I had already invented as a painter. My industrial design teacher suggested that I follow my intuition and focus on both the painting and the sculpture. He said I could do this and make a living as an artist by becoming a college teacher, where I would only have to teach two or three days a week, leaving me time for my own artwork. To do that, I would need a master’s degree in Fine Arts. This seemed like a good plan.
There was a visiting professor in the architecture department that used to come to Carnegie Mellon who was the head of the architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. He was a very charismatic soul. He would hang out after hours on campus and play music. The students liked him a lot. At the end of my sophomore year, I dragged him down into the sculpture studio to show him my welded sculptures, and told him I was thinking of graduate school. He seemed impressed enough to suggest that I apply to the Yale School of Art and Architecture graduate department, where he planned to be teaching in the near future. Earning my MFA from Yale gave me another two years to evolve as an artist before I finally headed for New York City.
ES: I see on your web site that you have produced several music CDs, and that you have been involved with music for many years. How does that relate to your other artwork?
JB: Well, as I mentioned, my father was a professional musician, and as a child I always heard the sounds of his music—the playing of his piano and organ—coming up from the basement. When I was 12-years old, he bought me a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, which fascinated me. For a short while, I used to be in a singing group that performed on stage, but frankly I was never comfortable as a performer. However, for many years I have enjoyed having a small recording studio as part of my larger studio, in which I have been able to create different sound experiments—many of which ended up in my art installations of the 1970’s and 80’s as sonic texture. Today, I mostly enjoy singing—mostly chanting in “tongues”—or else creating ambient-digital-sound backgrounds for new installations.
ES: Let’s talk about Walking to the Sky for a moment. Your recent work is very public. It still seems like you are “center stage” much like a musician?
JB: The first version of Walking To The Sky was created in 1991 for a large European exhibition in Kassel, Germany, where the sculpture remains to this day. In that sculpture, there was a solitary male figure walking upwards towards the sky. At the time, I thought of the figure as pretty much representing myself, but also all of humanity. The next year I created for the city of Strasbourg a second version of the sculpture—this time with a single female figure walking upwards towards the sky. At that time, I had always thought that if the appropriate moment ever presented itself, the next version of the sculpture should be one with many people walking to the sky—not just the single figure. And that opportunity came in 2004, when I was asked to create a temporary exhibition of a large sculpture for Rockefeller Center in New York City. It was at Rockefeller Center that Jill and Peter Kraus, as well as President Cohon, saw my newest version of the sculpture—with many people walking to the sky—and discussions to bring the sculpture to the Carnegie Mellon campus began.
ES: Can you tell me more about how the idea for Walking To The Sky came to you?
JB: My challenge and goal as an artist has always been primarily to be an inventor of innovative forms—new ways to express archetypal feelings and ideas that are inside each one us. Of course, the experience of one’s whole lifetime goes into each new day of work that we do, whether we are an artist or a scientist or whatever, but let me try to be more specific about your question. In reference to this particular sculpture, I usually can’t resist first talking about my childhood and giving a really early influence. I’ve told this story many times on the Carnegie Mellon campus already, but for those who haven’t heard it: When I was around 6 or 7-years old, I used to sit on my father’s knee in the living room and he would tell me stories about a friendly giant that lived in the sky. In these stories, my father and I would go up to visit this giant and to talk to him about good things that we could do for people back down on earth. Now, as seminal a moment in the creation of this sculpture as this father-son storytelling might seem to you, I must emphasize that there are many other seminal moments that go into the formalization of this idea as well, and most importantly, today, I do not think of this sculpture as people going up to the sky to talk to a giant! In fact, today, having lived another 57 years since those stories were told to me, the meaning for this sculpture becomes much more philosophical and potentially multi-faceted. I have been quoted as saying that this sculpture represents all of humanity, rising up from the earth to the heavens above—striving into the future with strength and determination. We are all learning to be free, and ultimately this sculpture is a symbol of our collective search for wisdom and awakened consciousness. All of that seems fine to me, but here’s something I keep thinking about these days, and I do relate it very directly to this sculpture. I am constantly amazed by the thought that our planet is one of billions of planets spinning around at thousands of miles per second in a galaxy which is one of billions of galaxies—all in motion. What I am trying to talk about here is the enormity of this organic unknown whole that we find ourselves part of. I mean, where did it all begin—was there a beginning?—and, where does it all end—and, is there an end?—and, where does it all come from anyhow? For me, these figures in the sculpture walking up and out into space express this search for answers. And, since the sculpture has been prominently and specifically placed on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, it would be natural to see it as a symbol for the exploration that all students are involved with.
ES: I’ve always noticed a sense a balance in your work: “Male/Female,” “Molecule Man,” your 1974 self-portrait has an image of a plus minus emblazoned on your forehead. I sense a continuity of balance in your work and “Walking to the Sky” seems like the most obvious product of this?
JB: Well, of course there is definitely an intimated sense of balance in “Walking To The Sky”. Each figure in the sculpture appears to be striving upwards into the future with great balance. None of the figures appears to be losing its balance or falling off the pole. In this sense, the sculpture is rather idealistic, because you and I know that on any given day and at any given time, we do feel a bit out of balance, if not close to “falling off the pole!” But, I have learned from my experience, as others have learned throughout the centuries, that a sense of balance is necessary for life’s energy to develop productively. It became evident to me at a young age that life was about bringing two energies (if not many) together—preferably in balance—to create a greater energy. Of course, the obvious example of this is a male and female coming together to reproduce a new life form. We could talk about the positive and negative forces ingrained in the physics of our solar system, or the simple need for a positive and negative pole to create electricity. I’m sure the computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon are well aware of the fact that it is the binary combination and interaction of two digits, a “zero” and a “one,” that enables us to create the words and pictures that we now send to each other around the world. Two energies coming together to create a greater energy! We even have examples of this in our own social interactions, whether it is black and white people learning to live together in harmony, or Republicans and Democrats attempting to work together. In the case of the Republicans and the Democrats, it becomes painfully obvious that when it is the goal of one group to basically destroy the other group, then very little gets done—the downside of democracy! Obviously, the goal on the planet is to learn to work together, and that’s where the concept of balance comes into play.
ES: You’ve created large public sculptures in many cities all over the world. Is there always the same kind of discussion that has been going on here at Carnegie Mellon?
JB: Oh yes, it’s the nature of art, but also the nature of any new ideas that we put out into the public arena—in science or art. And, millions of people every day are expressing their opinions on blogs, so I naturally expect there to be discussions revolving around my works as well. Specifically regarding my sculpture here on campus, I want to first point out to you that many colleges in the United States, Europe and Asia, have large art collections placed in and around their respective campuses. Some schools have as many as twenty or thirty unique artworks interspersed amongst campus life. This has the wonderful potential to enliven the cultural atmosphere of university life. Many of these schools also have excellent examples of new architecture designed by some of the best and most creative architects of our time. In this respect, I think Carnegie Mellon is committing itself to becoming part of this cultural awakening. So, don’t forget—when a sculpture like mine ends up at a particular public site, such as this one here at Carnegie Mellon, it is not my energy alone that has made this happen. I am simply a “tool” in the hands of others. There have been many serious, knowledgeable and well—intentioned people whose specific job it is to focus on what is best for Carnegie Mellon, now and into the future. The idea to bring this particular sculpture, Walking To The Sky, to the campus has been the result of a dedicated and educated group decision.
ES: I noticed during the installation you did not hesitate to talk to anyone that approached you?
JB: Actually, I enjoy talking about art or life with anyone who has some philosophical or psychological thoughts to put forth. It’s been especially great for me to have been able to talk to students because there is a lot for me to learn from these people. As we were nearing the completion of the installation of the sculpture, one student approached me and said, “I notice that as the figures move toward the very top of the pole, they seem to have less of a stride. Did you mean that when you come closer to spirituality you become more humble and less aggressive?” Well, I thought that was a very beautiful thought!
Borofsky accepted an honorary degree from the Carnegie Mellon School of Art at the 2006 May graduation ceremonies.