Katarina Lanfranco sketches out the plan for her site specific installation "Natural Selection which in the Sesnon Gallery. Photo by Sal Ingram
The wall of trees wraps around, from spring through the seasons, from the redwoods of the north Pacific to the cherry blossoms of the south, opening up into a cathedral grove.

Such an environment can be found inside Porter College’s Sesnon Gallery during UCSC alumni Katerina Lanfranco’s site-specific installation, “Natural Selection,” which opens with a gallery reception Feb. 1.

The piece, which was created in and specifically for the Sesnon Gallery, combines the traditional Japanese art forms of atagami (paper cutting) and ikebana (flower arrangement), soft sculptural flora sewn from regional fabrics of Kyoto, and chunks of a boulder from the west side of Santa Cruz.

The fusion of techniques and materials is reflective of the piece’s thematic discussion of nature and nativity. Much of the piece was inspired by Lanfranco’s experiences during her six-month National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Arts Fellowship residency in Kyoto.

“I see [the piece] as a certain kind of diplomacy,” Lanfranco said. “When I went to Japan, I was invited and my official government document said ‘Welcome’ and ‘We hope you are inspired basically by your cultural experience’ … The idea was a lot of people would be curious about what I did and I would be sharing my prospective and what I did in New York as an artist, and then upon returning, I could sort of reverse it, a little like a cultural ambassador.”

The trees are arranged to raise historical and cultural discussions.

“This is the atomic bomb tree next to the Canadian red maple leaf,” said Lanfranco as she gestured to the large trees etched out on the wall, “but I realized that I over-sized that maple leaf. I wanted to bring it close, but also, the Canadians had a Japanese internment on the west coast as well, and there isn’t a lot of talk about it. I feel like it can be a little somber moment by having the larger size.”

The trees span a visual and native range, creating a beautiful and naturally improbable forest. The heavy live oak sits next to ginkgo, next to magnolia, next to birch, pine and Japanese maple.

“Sharing cultural expression is a really nice way to pave the road to cultural understanding,” Lanfranco said.

The creation of Natural Selection is one part of Lanfranco’s low-residency artist in residence, which consists of three trips from her home in New York to Santa Cruz. The Natural Selection residency and piece are sponsored by the UCSC Arts Division, Porter College and the departments of art and history of art and visual culture (HAVC).

The first trip was to start the project and meet her student artist assistants. For 10 art department and HAVC students, working with Lanfranco is an independent study course for this winter quarter. In the course, they become Lanfranco’s apprentices. They assist her with the construction of the piece while learning about her studio practices, archiving, documenting, making a zine/catalogue for the exhibit, and how to utilize Twitter and a blog.

Later trips will be for the opening of the show, and to lead other supplementary educational opportunities, such as the paper cutting demonstration on Feb 2.

They can seek advice about graduate schools, being a working artist, and what the art world is actually like and how it functions.

“It’s kind of mysterious in a way,” Lanfranco said, “because at art school you learn a lot about the practice and theory, but not as much about the application of it in terms of a career.”

More than giving advice, student assistants learn through the process of bringing the installation to fruition.

“You see the seams,” said Dmitri Moore, a Kresge fourth-year art major. “I go to a lot of galleries, and shows, exhibitions and museums. You’re seeing this very, very meticulous end result … You’re watching this very, very finished product. But here you get to see how it got here. And the multitude of people involved in each project is amazing. It’s really cool.”

To get credit for the course, student assistants are supposed to be putting in seven hours a week. They have often been putting in more than double that, said Sesnon Art Gallery manager and assistant curator Mark Shunney.

“[Lanfranco’s] work ethic is really inspiring,” said third-year Kresge art major Heidi Cramer. “It’s nice to see someone who’s taking on the challenge of doing this all on her own. I mean, we’re here to help, but in the end it’s her call and she’s taking that all on.”

The students are also taking the reductive cut-out elements from the exhibit and using them to create their own art, which will be exhibited in its own show in a pop-up window gallery downtown with a piece of Lanfranco’s.

Lanfranco, who is also an art teacher in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, LIM College and Fordham University, said she enjoys the reciprocity of working with student assistants. She said it keeps things open in her work because of the constant dialogue with the student assistants.

“This is a unique experience in ways I haven’t heard of from the past years,” Shunney said. “We are doing an artist-in-residency in which the students are really engaged in working with the artist from the inception of the piece.”

Shunney is also excited about the related programming that goes with the Natural Selection installation. This includes the tours of the trees on campus that helped inspire the work he and all of the student artist assistants are trained to give, as well as the concurrent paper cutting show that will be displayed in the Sesnon’s microgallery.

“We’re curating artists not only from across the nation, but artists from the community, because there are a few who are really very skilled and very contemporary in their language with paper cut-outs. That to me is some of the pull we hope to achieve with the back gallery and Katerina’s opening at the same time. There are locals referencing people they know in the group show,” said Shunney, who sees this show as an opportunity to merge the microcosm of UCSC’s art community with the city at large.

But with everything aside, the philosophy of the piece is beautifully simple.

“I would say that it’s using nature as a metaphor for human cross-cultural experience,” Lanfranco said.

Opening February 1, 5:00- 7:00 pm with artist talk at 6:30 p.m.Exhibition Dates
February 1 – March 16, 2012Related Programming
Thursday, Feb. 2, 2-4pm: Paper cut-out demos
First Friday, Feb. 3, 2-4 p.m.: Gallery talk on Ikebana and Contemporary Art With Ikebana and Bonsai demonstrations by Mitsuyo Tao and Don White RSVP
Related exhibition: Clear Cuts: artists cutting paper
with works by Kara Walker, Jill Sylvia, Béatrice Coron, Felicia Gilman and others in the Sesnon Micro Gallery
In the Porter Faculty Gallery: Richard Wohlfeiler: Laser Cut Relief Prints