Walking one block north of St. Xavier College Church on Grand Boulevard, an unassuming pedestrian may be initially alarmed to see an enormous flock of blackbirds soaring through the Craft Alliance gallery space. No, it is not a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but rather 1,100 life-sized clay sculptures of birds in mid-flight suspended from the ceiling of the Craft Alliance Grand Center Gallery.
This powerful installation exhibition is called “flock” and is the work of Ann Coddington Rast, a fiber artist and associate professor at the Eastern Illinois University art department. Rast’s work has been exhibited in distinguished galleries throughout the country. She received an individual artist project grant for “flock” from the Illinois Art Council in 2012.
Although the piece fills up the relatively confined space of the Craft Alliance, one can still gain an art-viewing experience equivalent to that of a larger contemporary museum. Not only is Craft Alliance’s Grand Center within walking distance from the heart of SLU’s campus, it is free to visit during open gallery hours. SLU students are welcome to stroll in and experience the piece in its entirety. Maia McCarthy, a SLU freshman, describes the exhibit as “interesting and compelling, as far as sculpture goes.”
“I liked how the artist explained her process and I was surprised to find that there were over a thousand birds hanging in that space,” McCarthy said.
On Friday, Feb. 1, the Craft Alliance Grand Center Gallery opened “flock” to the public with a reception featuring the artist herself. During the reception, Rast explained how, over the course of a few years, one idea could grow into a powerful, physical work of art.
In her presentation, Rast said, “I had this idea with the approach of the apocalypse a few years ago to make this piece that was a flock of birds.”
As she read further into the Mayan philosophies surrounding their prediction of the apocalypse of Dec. 21, 2012, she was intrigued by the idea of this end as a period of unification: coming together instead of starting over.
“I decided to make a flock not only because of this idea of the end of days, but the end as a new beginning,” Rast said. “We’ve all looked up and seen flocks of birds and how beautifully they move in the sky and they never seem to have a way of communicating with one another, and yet they never run into one another. They move as one kind of organism, which I think is a beautiful metaphor with how to get along with each other.”
From this fascination, “flock” was born, and through various stages of production and years of dedicated work, it evolved into the piece seen today. The more than 1000 soaring blackbird sculptures began as hand-woven twined linen works. Then, as the artist realized she wanted to replicate hundreds more, she created plaster molds that were slip-casted with stoneware, fired, and finally hand-painted with two coats of black gesso.
“flock” finally took flight through the careful and strategic hanging of each individual sculpture by employees and affiliates of Craft Alliance as well as by dedicated volunteers from SLU and Meramac and Forest Park Community Colleges.
Thankfully, humankind did not perish in the Mayan-anticipated apocalypse and now we can easily and accessibly enjoy this compelling exhibit. Rast encourages viewers to walk around the exhibit and see it from all angles, immersing oneself in the flock and becoming a part of something larger than oneself.
McCarthy stated, “I think the most intriguing part of the sculpture was being able to walk around and behind it. Seeing it from different angles definitely changed my impressions and ideas about the piece.”
Experiencing “flock” will give the viewer a new perspective on how one views flocks of birds and flocks of people within society. Regardless of what angle it is seen from, the resonance of the underlying themes of unity, solidarity and the passage of time behind the exhibition can be experienced by students, teachers and artists alike.
“flock” will be on display at the Craft Alliance Grand Center Gallery through May 26 and is open Wednesday through Thursday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
More information on the exhibition can be found at: www.craftalliance.org/exhibitions/currentgc.htm