Paula Hayes’ living Aspen Art Museum installation is for the birds
Paula Hayes — the famed visual artist, sculptor and landscape designer — brought a living, site-specific installation to the commons outside the Aspen Art Museum this summer. Titled "Key Frame," the piece brings a bit of wild mountain growth and bird life to a highly trafficked corner of downtown Aspen.
"It's very much about the feeling up here," Hayes said this summer after the installation. "I really want it to attract the hummingbirds, which are so abundant."
All birds are welcome, though, Hayes added with a laugh: "I never kick anyone out of my little Airbnb."
The work includes a weeping pine, with shrubs and plants, in a deep oval-shaped planter plopped on the Aspen Art Museum's commons at the corner of Spring Street and Hyman Avenue downtown. A sculpture sprouts alongside the native pine. Made of UV-stable plastic, it mimics a hand making a pinching or "OK" sign. From it dangles a nesting house for birds.
"Key Frame" is designed to attract hummingbirds and pollinators to roost in the house. (It could work as a nest, and has in Hayes' similar installations elsewhere, but the high-traffic location likely won't attract any nesting birds.)
Hayes worked with ornithologists to make it as welcoming bird-friendly as can be.
She also collaborated with the local landscape architecture firm Bluegreen to make the piece happen, enlisting them for their expertise on local plant life and to care for it during its five months on the Aspen Art Museum commons (and to find a permanent home for the weeping pine later). The team planned meticulously for the June installation — digging into the idiosyncrasies of high alpine the horticulture and bird life while Hayes build 3-D models.
Over the past three decades, Hayes' expansive vision — including terrariums and landscaped environments — have made her a rare species of artist, finding a home in galleries, in outdoor installations and in landscaped environments. She's had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts.
Hayes was familiar with Aspen before making "Key Frame."
She'd done one previous show for the Aspen Art Museum, seven years ago in its old building. Hayes — who lives in New York City and the Hudson Valley — has also made work for private collections here, and has designed the landscape for a local home. The dramatic setting and the grand scale of the mountains have stuck with her through the years, and inspired "Key Frame."
"It's so special here," she said. "I've come here several times and it's actually been in my dreams. It's influenced me a lot, this place."
Her inspiration for this piece was to connect the urban setting of downtown to the wild surroundings that are so close at hand. Hayes joked that she is unable to make eye contact with people in Aspen, because she's always looking up and around at the mountainscapes and the quality of the light. This tiny slice of mountain greenery on the sidewalk downtown, she said, is an invitation to keep people connected to the forest.
This little planted environment also affects the way passersby interact with the built environment and the museum itself.
"When we put the dirt here, the building felt so light," she said. "It's like it grounded this corner."
The work is constructed of plastic and industrial materials, but Hayes discusses it in terms of its authenticity, of optimizing its ability to interact with birds, bugs and animals as well as humans. Standing next to "Key Frame" and discussing it, she started clapping and exclaimed "They're here!" when a bee arrived to check out her work.
Viewing the installation while walking toward it from the north or south, at times "Key Frame" blends in with the green mountains behind it — Aspen Mountain to the south and Red Mountain to the north.
"I love that you kind of can't see it," Hayes said. "That sounds strange for an artist to say. But I'm like, 'Wow, you can't see it!'"
And she hopes that seeing it up against the background of the museum or surrounding buildings makes people reimagine the built environment of downtown Aspen.
"That's interesting, too, because that forces you to think about the interaction between the nature and the building — you're looking through it," she said.
During installation, the museum's curatorial staff handled the plants and sculpture with the clinical care they give to every artwork — approaching it delicately, wearing gloves. Hayes had to laugh and note that this was not a typical artwork and wouldn't be troubled by some fingerprints.
"I'm like, 'You know, we're going to plant these,'" she recalled. "'The birds are going to poop on it! The bears might be in there.' There's a lot of potential for good."
The morning before the opening party for "Key Frame," Hayes and her husband visited the Maroon Bells. Its pristine preservation, she said, overwhelmed her. Spending so much of her career digging in the dirt and developing a relationship with the wild things of the Earth, Hayes is protective of it and committed to conserving its resources. The global desecration of the environment through pollution and industry is a weight on her, both personally and creatively.
"I was crying," she said of her Maroon Bells visit. "I felt this protective thing, like 'If anything were ever to happen to this…' Things have happened to these places and humans have done things to these systems. Working in an era of heartbreak is difficult for an artist, but I feel committed to keep going and keep doing it."