I [CHEVRON] YOU
Self-reflection can be a messy process. Artist-designer Sandra Fettingis shows us that it doesn’t have to be.
By Anjulie Rao
“Everything is going to be okay,” they tell you. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Tomorrow is a new day.”
These are all mighty fine propositions for those keen on cliché. But for those of us who seek new places and vocabularies for healing, catharsis, and forgiveness—safer spaces for introspection—Sandra Fettingis, a Chicago-raised, Denver-based visual artist, would like to take a moment to talk to you about those processes, and provide you a space and the means to discuss them with others.
At first glance, Fettingis’s work appears as geometric curtains. Chevrons, parallelograms, right triangles adorn her large and small-scale pieces in draping configurations. They are monochromatic, angular, and mathematical. Intricate to the very last detail, with paper-thin strips of styrene and wood connecting individual shapes, dotted with opaque forms, they are most reminiscent of high-design and decorative modernism.
Yet, when encountering these works in situ, their titles are startling and seem distant from the original work. Titling her shows with emotive, often poetic phrases such as Tell Me When You Hear Me Falling, This Time Things Will Be Different, and The Longest Fall, Fettingis infuses design with language, referencing experiences such as heartbreak, letting go, and moving on.
Fettingis’s work operates in a small nook—the center of an unusual venn diagram—where introspection and reflection intersect with the precision of geometry. According to Fettingis, this intersection begins with her process. “I choose a title for the show, then design each piece with the space in mind.” Unlike many curated exhibitions or individual works which organize a show around a theme and allow the title to serve as an afterthought, these titles contribute depth and emotion to her works, and provide a personal context within which each work was made.
The artist’s Chicago origins can provide some context to her fascination with modernism and the connection between design and the personal. Fettingis notes the diversity of Chicago’s many offerings: “The architecture, fashion, interiors, museums, and street life all subconsciously influenced me,” she says. The city of itself was arguably built by modernism—from the Willis (Sears) Tower’s notable International Style of architecture that dominates the city’s skyline, to the Art Deco façades that ornament apartment buildings and skyscrapers—Fettingis, who grew up in the Northwest side of the city, was exposed to the angular modernity of design from an early age through her education at the downtown Columbia College.
Early work by Fettingis reveals the beginnings of her fascination with the clean lines and angularity of design and an interest in combining that fascination with feminine imagery. Some of her early designs depict monochromatic silhouettes: a woman cyclist whose backpack is releasing geometric, butterfly-like creatures; or, a faceless female head (which Fettingis admits might have been a self portrait), whose hair seems to be infinitely expanding. Fettingis explained that these butterflies and bulging hair-do’s “are ideas and dreams. They are growing out of her.”
If these were self-portraits, then Fettingis has accurately depicted herself then and now. Today, her works have evolved into more complex artworks which take weeks of planning, drawing, construction, and painting to complete. After choosing the title and viewing the installation space, Fettingis uses Adobe Illustrator and a laser cutter to produce the circuitous pieces. Though formulaic in this process, she approaches each work from a perspective that reflects her personal situation at the time: “The emotion comes out especially during the process, while I am sitting at my computer making the designs. I think about how big of a scale the piece is, and what I will be able to say with that title in that particular space,” she says. “Making work with the title in mind becomes like a mantra.”
A mantra is an utterance, believed to have strong spiritual powers when repeated audibly. And with mantras like Everything is Fine, Starting Now—the title of her 2012 exhibition at GroundSwell Gallery in Denver—or Things Are Different Now, her most recent show at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California, Fettingis infuses her own story with her designs, allowing individuals to relate to and understand her work on a very different plane. She explains, “Instead of the meaning behind the work being concrete, it is an understanding between myself and the audience: Sometimes, your heart gets broken. In my work, I can ask my viewer, ‘Can we talk about that?’”
Aesthetically, what Fettingis is experiencing manifests itself in size, shape, and color. Her works in The Longest Fall at (the now defunct) Factory Made in Boulder, Colorado, demonstrate an extended period of difficulty; blocks of raw, laser-cut wood attach to complex, bi-chromatic designs that act as a base to elongated pieces of styrene, connecting “fallen” pieces of the patterns. The Longest Fall—could it possibly be a reference to a neglected connection? Or, a period of falling out of love? The reference is unknown, but that is not important—what she is emphasizing is the notion of empathy. States Fettingis, “I’m trying to acknowledge that we all go through the same difficulties. It makes me feel more connected to other people around me, allowing me to close a chapter in my life. That way, I can move on.”
What begins as a mantra to the artist becomes an opportunity for personal healing, as well as an invitation for viewers to connect with her. Though not a material component of her process of producing work, creating empathy is vital to understanding and appreciating her aesthetic. “Its important that, while I am bridging both being an artist and a designer, the audience has an idea of what the work is saying—what I am going through. It brings design to a more human level,” she says.
By humanizing design, Fettingis is speaking a universal language. A fitting choice for an artist/designer who is using the mathematical medium of geometry—arguably, the most universal language of all—she is also channeling the all-embracing powers of pathos and self-awareness, and producing new means for audiences to connect with art, design, and one another.
Sandra Fettingis’s current work, Things Are Different Now, is on display at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California as a part of the exhibition New Neon. Her most recent installation can be viewed at the Denver Convention Center, her largest commission to date.
Anjulie Rao is a writer and critic based in Chicago. Her work has been featured in fNewsmagazine, Preservation Nation blog, and E+D Magazine. She is a regular contributor to Curbed: Chicago.