Artist Rob Neilson has been commissioned to create two permanent public art pieces inside the new Fox Cities Exhibition Center, which will debut January 11.
The first piece, titled “We Are Here,” is an installation made from 10,000 photographs of Fox Cities residents. From a distance, the 7- by 10-foot installation will appear as the faces of 10 residents from 10 different communities within the Fox Cities. Upon closer inspection, viewers will see that each of the images are actually mosaics made from thousands of community members’ faces.
Incorporating actual residents into the design was appealing to Neilson because it challenges a long-held truth that public art honors a particular type of person, namely historical men charging into battle on horseback.
“I love this notion of public art that is about the rest of us – the folks here in the Fox Cities who are doing great things with their lives,” says Neilson, an art professor at Lawrence University. “Maybe it’s not the kind of things that will get written about in history books, but there’s a greatness to it, and so why shouldn’t the rest of us be commemorated in public art as well? It doesn’t just have to be guys who win battles.”
Neilson undertook the task of capturing 10,000 headshots by photographing locals at area farmers markets, libraries, businesses, universities and events. His goal was to showcase individuals from as many different backgrounds as possible.
“I wanted this to represent everyone in the community,” Neilson says. “My sense is Appleton and the Fox Cities are a more diverse community than many people realize.”
The second commissioned piece, titled “You Are Here,” is a 14-foot steel sculpture shaped like the state of Wisconsin with a giant thumbtack pinned to the Fox Cities region. The sculpture will hang from the exhibition center’s ceiling at an angle that mimics the vertical ascent of the Fox River Locks. The sculpture was inspired by themes of travel, the Fox Cities as a destination and the area’s history of papermaking.
Neilson says public art comes in many forms, from large scale installations to manhole covers, but they all share an important similarity.
“Any artistic gesture that engages the public is some form of public art, and that is all I’m trying to do,” he says. “I’m trying to engage the public and community with the process.”
On Thursday, Jan. 11, doors open at 5 p.m. and Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna will give a brief address at 5:30 p.m., with a ribbon-cutting to follow. Enter in the Exhibition Center’s Lawrence Street entrance, located immediately below the skywalk connecting the new structure to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel (355 W. Lawrence St., Appleton).