by Isabel Dorn
Portable Shelter, an exhibition by Appleton artist Erica Hess, is currently on display at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Fox Cities campus in Menasha. It opened on June 30 and will be open until August 25, 2023.
Through 22 striking pieces, Hess explores the themes of homes, personal identity, and perceptions of perfection using materials from contemporary construction. The entire exhibition fits inside the campus’s Aylward Gallery, a single room composed of asymmetric angles. White walls, glossy tile floors, and large windows provide a light, modern backdrop for Hess’s work. Muted yet inviting shades ofwhite, beige, and gray lend a peaceful, reflective atmosphere to the gallery, while occasional flashes of burgundy and cherry red catch the viewer’s attention with their unexpected vibrance.
For Hess, the gallery’s layout and aesthetics played a crucial role in the exhibition’s development. While she typically makes some preliminary sketches of her ideas before choosing an exhibition space, she likes using the gallery’s walls as a springboard for her designs.
“Once I have a space, then I can start to envision the work that is in that space,” said Hess. “I knew the first wall to focus on, and some of the other pieces fell into place as a result of those pieces.”
Although Portable Shelter does not specifically focus on a single geographic location, Hess drew inspiration from her broader personal ideas of home, which were heavily shaped by her previous experiences with moving. After relocating several times within Wisconsin during her childhood, she spent over 20 years living in Madison before settling in Appleton in 2020. She shared that moving to Appleton during the COVID–19 pandemic and buying her latest home was the impetus for the exhibition.
“In the past 5 years [of my life], there was a lot of transition, so my house represents stability, safety, and comfort,” said Hess. “I’m a homebody, as you might guess.”
Many of her previous works explored the process of moving and how people protect their favorite objects over time, as well as the sentimental value that people assign to their belongings.
“How do you store the things that are most important?” Hess mused. “What happens if you die and those objects just go to somebody else or to St. Vinny’s? What happens to them as they change hands and the meaning that we give them? What does it mean to carry your stuff with you wherever you go?”
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a collection of small molding knives arranged in a striking grid. The angular, uniquely shaped pieces contrast with the uniform square wood panel upon which they are mounted, creating the visual effect of an intricate maze.
Three massive 60” x 60” floor plans fill an entire wall on the right side of the room. Unpainted plywood outlines of buildings in unpainted plywood are slightly sunken into textured denim-blue backgrounds of recycled felt, drawing the eye into the houses themselves. According to Hess, these designs were the foundation of the exhibition and served as a catalyst for the development of other pieces.
Elegant scalloped shapes are scattered throughout the exhibit, inspired by trim samples used in carpentry. After observing that trim is often used to cover the points where materials come together, Hess began reflecting on how most architecture is centered around impossible ideas of perfection.
“All of the things we look at—for example, the way that the ceiling molding fits together —is based on Greek architecture and ideas of perfection,” she said. “That’s interesting to me because [Greek ideas of perfection] are basically about covering up these imperfections.”
While layering the construction materials to build her works, Hess purposefully left small flaws uncovered to reinforce the theme of imperfection. Most of her works are constructed from plywood and foam. The exhibition also contains a few pieces made from concrete and bronze, but she no longer prefers using these materials because they require an intensive installation process.
The central focus of the gallery is a collection of freestanding three-dimensional sculptures that mirror the smaller trim profiles mounted on the walls, which Hess refers to as “last-minute happy accidents”. Simple yet visually stimulating, these stained plywood shapes add complexity between the more uniform lines of the surrounding pieces.
Hess has a deep affinity for three-dimensional art and stated that these sculptures are her favorite pieces in the exhibition.
“I know it’s kind of cliché, but it’s like a body, a child, this object that exists outside of me,” she said.
For Hess, art is a tool for processing ideas that she wants to think about rather than a medium for expressing specific feelings to the public. Although she is happy to share the inspiration behind her work, she emphasized that the exhibition does not depict a single narrative; instead, she wants viewers to bring their own unique perspectives and interpretations.
“One of my favorite parts of making visual artwork is that I don’t have to have a story,” she said. “I don’t have to draw a conclusion if I don’t want to, and I don’t have to teach you anything. I’m just happy for people to go and bring their own experience and all their thoughts to it. If they see what I was seeing, that is amazing, but that’s not an expectation; that’s just a bonus.”
Isabel Dorn (she/her) is a junior at Lawrence University studying Creative Writing, Government, and Russian. She is a frequent contributor to her university’s weekly student-run newspaper The Lawrentian, where she shares pieces ranging from op-eds about intersectional activism to poetry that explores the complexities of coming of age in the 21st century. As a Vietnamese American woman, she sees writing as a powerful tool for social justice and strives to create more visibility for underrepresented groups with her work. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her participating in student government, creating niche Spotify playlists, or enjoying a good boba.
June 30th—August 25th, 2023
UWO-Fox Valley Campus
111 W. College Ave., Appleton, WI 54911 Monday–Thursday 9 am–10 pm
Friday: 9 am–5pm Saturday & Sunday: Closed