Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Leo Saul Berk

The local artist draws inspiration from his unique childhood home for Structure and Ornament at Frye Art Museum.

By Seth Sommerfeld June 2, 2015

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Leo Saul Berk, Clinkers, 2012, duratrans, sculptural light box, 76 x 64.625 x 3.75 in.

Artist Leo Saul Berk stole the show in the Frye Art Museum’s 2012 group exhibition Moment Magnitude with works depicting his childhood home—architect Bruce Goff’s famed Ford House in the suburbs of Chicago. Standouts like Clinkers, an otherworldly sculptural light box of the exterior masonry that glows emerald green, showcased the spirit of this one-of-a-kind home. Now, Berk returns to the Frye and fleshes out the concept with Structure and Ornament. There's a deeply personal connection to place on display in the show, and each piece is given its own space. There may only be a handful of works that comprise the exhibit, but it feels right having Berk provide little meaningful glimpses into the Ford House rather than being overwhelmed by it.

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Leo Saul Berk

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Berk before the exhibit opened about turning his childhood home into an art project, architecture, and sleeping on the floor.

What were the origins of Structure and Ornament?

It started with making one piece. I woke up from a dream about sleeping on the floor of the house that I grew up in—the Ford House—and that floor was radiantly heated.

We moved into the house, which is in the Chicago suburbs, in the January of 1980, and it was bitter cold. We moved there from England where it’s temperate, like here. And all of our furniture was on a boat that was going to take weeks to arrive, so we didn’t have anything to sleep in or on. It was really, really cold and the house is very poorly insulated. My parents bought four sleeping bags and a rug, and we slept on the floor where it’s radiantly heated. We were kept warm by the floor.

And I had this dream about waking up on that floor, on that rug, and I had an idea to make a rug with the thermal image of that floor [Heat Signature]. So I got up from that dream, and from that realization, wrote an email to the current owner [of the Ford House] asking if he would ever let me come by and shoot some photography of the floor of the house. It’s kind of one of those emails that you send off and think it’s a long shot, but he emailed back within minutes and said, “Of course you can come. And how long would you like to stay? And do you want to stay in your old bedroom?”

And that’s literally how it began. I bought a ticket and went there. I thought I was making only one piece, but as soon as I got there I realized that I’d be making a number of pieces. And the more I made, the more I realized I needed to make. It became three years and many visits.

What are the two new pieces in the show?

There’s one new piece in the reflecting pool of the Frye [Specular Reflector]. The piece is two components: We’ve dyed the water of the reflecting pool using a black dye that’s made for ponds—it looks like different colors in different light—and it makes the water opaque, but it also makes it more reflective. The other component is these green, 10- to 12-inch blown-glass spheres that are hollow but filled with water to make them appear solid. They are placed so that the water hits them at their equator. That piece is referencing the reflecting pools that were never built for the Ford House; there were things that were never realized for the Ford House, probably because they ran out of money because the project was so expensive. And it also references the floor of the house, which was originally specced to have green marbles embedded in the black concrete floor.

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Leo Saul Berk,  Specular Reflections, 2015, 45 glass spheres, black pond dye, 12 x 900 x 180 in. x 60 x 60 in.

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Leo Saul Berk, Wind Jangle, 2015, aluminum, fishing line, weights, 29 strands: 315 in. each.

There’s another piece that’s going in the rotunda. The piece is called Wind Jangle. There are roughly 1,500 aluminum hemispherical shapes that are suspended on cable that descends from the perimeter of that oculus in the ceiling of the rotunda all the way to the floor. It references these wind jangles the architect Bruce Goff would draw on his renderings of the buildings, and most often those were not realized as well. There were some that were drawn on the Ford House renderings that were never completed. So both of those pieces are trying to imagine these things that were never completed.

What about your process or approach changed over the course of the years working on pieces for Structure and Ornament?

I would say the earlier works are more based in nostalgia. There’s definitely a more emotional beginning to the pieces. The later works do more referencing of the documentation of the house. I was able to go to the Art Institute of Chicago where they house the most of Bruce Goff’s drawings and renderings and letters and things like that. So many of the later works are looking at that from a less emotional place—not that they’re without emotion, but they have less of a connection to my childhood.

How do you feel Seattle has influenced your art?

I’ve had a really good experience with the art community here: with the other artists and dealers and curators in this town. A lot of my work has been about understanding how we experience space, and our place. And I’ve really enjoyed not only the history part of Seattle, but also the topography and the geography of the area which is so very varied, and that’s been an important in previous work.

The last thing would be that a lot of people talk about how much easier it is to make it as an artist in a place like New York or Los Angeles. And I believe to become what most people would consider to be a “successful artist,” that’s definitely true. But I feel like my work has really benefited from not having the pressures that those artists have to deal with in terms of being a commercial gallery artist. I feel like I’ve had more space to do the work I feel is important.

If you weren’t an artist, is there another line of work you’d pursue?

I’d be an architect.

That makes sense considering your art.

I actually just started doing some architecture. I have friends who have a construction company, and I’ve started doing design work for them.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would just say that this feels like a really important show for me; a show that feels like the culmination of a life’s work to this point. There’ll be other big shows, but this one feels like a big moment for me.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament
May 30–Sept 5, Frye Art Museum, Free

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Leo Saul Berk, Structure and Ornament, 2014, plywood and acrylic, 120 x 213 x 59 in.

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