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Internationally renowned artist Mark di Suvero installs sculpture, new paintings at SLOMA 

If you happen to go by the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, you'll see something new on the lawn outside the building on the corner of Monterey and Broad Streets: a 4-ton monumental sculpture called Mamma Mobius by painter, sculptor, and 2010 National Medal of the Arts recipient Mark di Suvero. If you wander inside the gallery, you'll see a new collection of the lifelong peace and social justice activist's paintings and sculptures called History and its Shadow.

How did this internationally celebrated artist, whose work is collected in more than 100 museums and public collections, end up showing new works in SLO? You can thank SLOMA's new executive director, Leann Standish, who met di Suvero about 20 years ago when she was working at Michigan's Frederick Meyers Sculpture Gardens where di Suvero was installing one of his monumental pieces. Standish, di Suvero, and his partner, Heidi, have been friends ever since.

click to enlarge BLACK LIGHT SPECIAL Mark di Suvero's new phosphorescent paintings are inspired by the coastal phenomenon of dinoflagellate bioluminescence—single-celled organisms that sometimes create a blue glow in the ocean at night. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK DI SUVERO
  • Photos Courtesy Of Mark Di Suvero
  • BLACK LIGHT SPECIAL Mark di Suvero's new phosphorescent paintings are inspired by the coastal phenomenon of dinoflagellate bioluminescence—single-celled organisms that sometimes create a blue glow in the ocean at night.

Suvero, 87, was born to Italian parents in Shanghai, China, and immigrated to the U.S. as a child. His art training began early on.

"As children, we used to go to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco at Land's End to do art classes," di Suvero recalled. "Malo [the grandmother of di Suvero's childhood best friend] took us in as refugees, just arriving from China. She let us live in her basement. She trained children in arts and crafts. Many years later, I became a junior art counselor on her trips to the redwoods and giant redwoods."

Even earlier, di Suvero had an eye for art: "Before I was 7 years old and came to the U.S., I went to the Forbidden City in Peking. The architecture is fabulous."

Di Suvero and his wife now live in Bodega Bay but also have homes in New York City and Paris. He has deep ties to the Central Coast.

"When I was 18 years old, I trained as a boat builder and rebuilt a sunken lifeboat and fitted it with sails and a bunk below deck," he explained. "I sailed it to Santa Barbara from San Francisco. On the way back, in the middle of a night storm, I ended up shipwrecking northwest of Avila Beach. About a year later, I bought a steel lifeboat and sailed it to near Avila Beach."

click to enlarge CURIOUS MIND The work of painter and sculptor Mark di Suvero, on display the SLOMA, is informed by his interest in "music, philosophy, and the theory of mathematics." - PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK DI SUVERO
  • Photos Courtesy Of Mark Di Suvero
  • CURIOUS MIND The work of painter and sculptor Mark di Suvero, on display the SLOMA, is informed by his interest in "music, philosophy, and the theory of mathematics."

He also attended UCSB, and an exhibition in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art inspired him to dedicate his life to creating art. Unfortunately, he was paralyzed in a construction site accident in 1960 and uses a wheelchair or sometimes crutches to get around. A couple of years ago, one of his legs was amputated after it was badly burned in a welding accident—yet none of that seems to have slowed him down. He operates a crane to create his massive sculptures, telling NPR in an interview a few years ago that he uses the crane like a painter uses a brush.

The new sculpture outside SLOMA, Mamma Mobius, is part of an ongoing series the artist started decades ago.

"I've been doing Mobius bands in steel, stainless steel, and brass since the 1960s," he noted. "It's a beautiful, one-sided topological form."

Inspired by "music, philosophy, and the theory of mathematics," the sculpture is also an example of his deep intellectual curiosity that also informs his painting. His new series, History and its Shadow, uses phosphorescent and fluorescent paints that are visible in daylight and under a black light, inspired by the coastal phenomenon of dinoflagellate bioluminescence, the single-celled organisms that sometimes create a blue glow in the water at night.

"I've been painting for almost 70 years, and the inspiration for painting has always been the ability to use color," he explained. "For me, painting is the truth that colors together cause emotions, just like wind and humidity make a storm. In order to see the ultraviolet dimension of these paintings, they need to be in the dark and use a black light. Some of the pigments just glow in the dark; some require ultraviolet to activate. There are many ways to see this world, and the exploration—for example, of paintings made for ultraviolet and normal light—is a hint of the complex way that the world works."

click to enlarge FOAM CORE SCULPTURE In addition to three hanging sculptures like the one pictured above in di Suvero's SLOMA exhibition, the artist's massive 4-ton sculpture Mamma Mobius will be installed outside the museum on Aug. 12. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK DI SUVERO
  • Photos Courtesy Of Mark Di Suvero
  • FOAM CORE SCULPTURE In addition to three hanging sculptures like the one pictured above in di Suvero's SLOMA exhibition, the artist's massive 4-ton sculpture Mamma Mobius will be installed outside the museum on Aug. 12.

Mamma Mobius and History and its Shadow are big wins for the SLOMA, and Standish couldn't be happier about the collaboration with her longtime friend.

"We are really, really stoked," she said. "Mark is one of the world's most acclaimed artists of our time, and we couldn't be more thrilled to share his inspiring work with San Luis Obispo and the larger California community. All of us at SLOMA are deeply grateful to Mark for sharing this world premiere exhibition at our museum."

SLOMA has also partnered with city of San Luis Obispo to manage its public art program for the next two years and possibly beyond, and Mamma Mobius will be the newest addition to the city's extensive collection, which at times has been a subject of controversy. Art is, after all, subjective.

"I really believe art starts a dialogue," Standish noted. "I don't like every piece of art that I see, but I appreciate art."

Earlier this year, Standish oversaw the large-scale mural, Pacificaribbean, curated by Emma Saperstein and painted on the museum's exterior by renowned artist Juan Alberto Negroni.

"Juan's mural around the building—we watched people feel ownership. He invited people to help paint it, saying, 'Now it's yours,'" Standish said. "That's what public art can do, and Juan's piece taught us what out neighbors need and want." Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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