Ebere Agwuncha and Taylor Blair do not necessarily think of themselves as artists.
The pair, both seniors majoring in industrial design, won a $300 prize and the opportunity to have their pop-up installation displayed at the Des Moines Art Center to kick off its three-month long “Queer Abstraction” exhibition.
“I don’t think I’m interested in art per se,” Blair said. “I’ve taken a lot of drawing classes, but I never made art myself for my own enjoyment. It’s always in the context of a project. I think it’s fun just to have some constraints. If I sit down in front of a piece of paper I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.' There’s too many options. I like when someone gives me a problem to solve, which was how this project was.”
Agwuncha, quick to agree with her collaborator and friend, said it is more about design and how things come together.
Marking the first time the Des Moines Art Center has had an exhibit focusing on LGBTQIA+ art and artists, the two artists were able to show off their work June 1 to a crowd of more than 700 people. The exhibition is put on by various entities including the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and includes art from Sheila Pepe and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
The two students learned about the contest through a call for artists included in a design student newsletter. The pop-up installation, which measures roughly 9 feet long and 9 feet wide, took about 25 hours to complete. It features rainbow colors and interactive pieces for people to display when taking photos.
“The exhibit was called queer abstraction, LGBT artists, they can express themselves through abstract art,” Blair said. “So we wanted to create a backdrop, and backdrops usually have the name of the event on them and we wanted to do something like that without being too direct. So we took the word abstract, and we just layered it over itself until it became abstract itself.”
The blocks not attached to the main piece were used to fit the art center’s requirement for the pop-up to be interactive. The blocks featured rainbow-colored words such as “ally,” “artist” and “queer.”
“We really wanted all the guests to interact with our experience,” Agwuncha said.
The pair applied to submit their work during Finals Week and put it on the backburner, not thinking that they would be chosen out of all the art submitted.
Not thinking they would win, Blair decided to go on a cruise with his family. After finding out they were selected, the pair had to brainstorm ideas over text from thousands of miles away.
The process commenced immediately upon Blair’s return, leaving them only two weeks to complete their installation.
Agwuncha and Blair shared excitement and anxiety upon finding out they had been selected. With Blair being on a cruise and the deadline looming only a couple of weeks away, the two were shocked at the notification that they had won.
“We had some crazy ideas in the beginning,” Agwuncha said. “But we really wanted to simplify what we wanted to say for the night and wanted to make it in a reasonable amount of time.”
With only two weeks to complete their project, the piece became a full-time job.
“We designed it digitally,” Blair said. “We printed things out, made stencils and cut them out, a lot of insulation foam, sanded it, gessoed it, painted it, laser-cut acrylic, colored acrylic, spray painted it, attach the acrylic to the thing. It was a whole process.”
The contest was open for pairs and solo artists, so, having not worked on anything art related outside of class, Agwuncha and Blair decided to submit a collaborative work.
“It was good to work with another person,” Agwuncha said. “It was nice to be our own leaders for the design process. Once Taylor sent me the call to artists I was like, ‘why not?’ We had the ability and mind to do so, and we’re both queer artists.”
At the grand opening of the exhibition, Blair and Agwuncha opted to stay at their installation and interact with guests. The pair took pictures with guests and gave them suggestions for how to pose with the interactive blocks. The two artists were taken aback by how well their piece was received, Agwuncha said. The opening night also hosted other artists that had their work included in the exhibition.
The pair also made their love for the industrial design department at Iowa State known.
“Shoutout the the industrial design department,” Blair said. “We couldn’t have done it without the facilities on campus. The design outlet center is where we laser-cut things. We used our things at the Armory.”
Being novices at working with artists and art commissioners, Agwuncha said the staff at the art center were helpful and professional in helping them navigate the creation, transportation and display of their piece.
“They were very professional in trying to get back and forth with us with measurements, questions were had regarding the space, things that we could do to make the space bigger and brighter and lighting,” Agwuncha said. “It was a really nice experience.”