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Artist Athena Tacha Explores the Mysteries and Rhythms of Nature

Environmental sculpture, photographic works examine biological phenomena

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 17 March 2009
Athena Tacha stands before a series of photographic self-portraits. (Richard Spear)

Artist Athena Tacha stands before a photographic work, titled 36 Years of Aging, that charts her own aging process.

Second in a series of four articles

Washington — The timeless elements of water and stone, powerful agents of geologic change, are recurring motifs in the bold and richly textured works of multidisciplinary artist Athena Tacha. An environmental sculptor and conceptual artist who works in a variety of media, Tacha is perhaps best known for creating public spaces that evoke the grandeur of nature, even in the unlikeliest of urban settings.

“All my art is nature-oriented and particularly inspired by water and land formations, or biological rhythms,” Tacha told America.gov. With a résumé that includes nearly 40 public art commissions across the United States, Tacha is among the most accomplished — and prolific — creators of site-specific environmental sculpture in the country. One of her most acclaimed projects is the Green Acres courtyard piece (1986), commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and located in Trenton, New Jersey.

Green Acres boasts a number of eye-catching features: curving steps that mimic the rippling effect of ocean waves, planters showcasing a variety of local plants, and polished green granite paving blocks with photographic images sandblasted onto their surface. The sandblasted images — which promptly vanish when it rains, and slowly re-emerge as the stone dries — depict the endangered plants and wildlife of New Jersey. For many visitors, the ghostly quality of these images is a reminder that endangered species could disappear swiftly if they are not rigorously protected.

Significantly, it was Tacha who pioneered the use of sandblasted documentary photographs in environmental sculpture during the early to mid-1980s, when the technique was new. Other artists have since adopted the practice, and many familiar public monuments — notably, the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington — owe a debt to Tacha’s innovative methods.

The beauty and power of nature has been a near-constant theme in Tacha’s work, dating back to the 1970s. A native of Greece, Tacha first launched her career as an art historian and museum curator, then taught sculpture at Ohio’s Oberlin College until 1998. Meanwhile, she exhibited her sculptures and conceptual-art projects, and her reputation grew. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and many other institutions have acquired Tacha’s works as part of their permanent collections.

In addition to creating distinctive landscape art for public spaces, Tacha has produced sculptures of waterfalls, canyons, volcanoes and cresting ocean waves — detailed replicas of nature’s most complex designs rendered on a relatively small, intimate scale. “I want to extract the essence … of all forms in nature that captivate my eye and give me peace and joy: rock formations, sand dunes, sea waves, icicles, tree bark, soap bubbles, lava flows, coral reefs, schools of fish and an infinity of other manifestations of organic and inanimate matter,” she said.

Conceptual art has become an increasingly important aspect of her oeuvre, as well. Some of Tacha’s photographic works offer commentary on social trends, while others examine nature’s dominant role in the human life cycle.

In 2008, Tacha mounted an exhibition of 216 black-and-white photographic self-portraits, collectively titled 36 Years of Aging (1972–2007), documenting the effects of time on her own face and body. An unsentimental meditation on the aging process, 36 Years of Aging conveys an acceptance of biological rhythms that mark distinct phases in the artist’s life. But accepting that process is not always easy, according to Tacha. She describes aging as an “effect of time that fascinates me, much as I rebel against it.”

The Washington-based Tacha, juggling sculptural commissions and conceptual projects, recently designed the fountains and amphitheater of a three-level plaza at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Tacha’s nature-inspired design features 48 glass columns of varying heights, with aerated water cascading down. Currently, she is designing a plaza to be built in Washington; the completed site — intended as an airy outdoors oasis for city dwellers — will include a fountain, an illuminated arcade ceiling and a light sculpture tower.

“I naturally want my sculptures to be permanent so that they carry their message to more people through their physical presence,” said Tacha. “But I also want them to last in order to have a chance to age — to be worn out from use, covered partly with weeds or scars, mellowed by time, slowly taken over by nature and blended with it.”

Tacha has been affiliated with the University of Maryland since 1998. She is preparing for a retrospective exhibition, titled AT: From the Public to the Private, scheduled to open January 15, 2010, in Thessaloniki, Greece.

More information on Tacha's work is available on her Web site.

Courtyard with curving steps and landscaped plants (Richard Spear)

Green Acres has curving steps, landscaped plants, and photographs of endangered species sandblasted onto a granite surface.

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