Artist Samuel Borkson on bringing FriendsWithYou to Aspen and Snowmass
’Little Cloud’ lightbox shines on gondola plaza, ’The Dance’ performs in Snowmass Village three times per week
What: ‘The Dance’ by FriendsWithYou
Where: The Rink at Snowmass Base Village
When: 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays; 6 p.m. on Saturdays
How much: Free
More info: aspensnowmass.com
There are orbs dancing on ice in Snowmass and a “beacon of hope” shining in gondola plaza in Aspen, as artists Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III bring their friendly visions slopeside.
The pair, of the Los Angeles-based FriendsWithYou collaborative, partnered with the Aspen Skiing Co. to design the ski season’s passes and recently installed a lightbox at gondola plaza featuring their Little Cloud character. Three times a week on the ice rink in Snowmass Base Village, you can see a free performance of “The Dance,” a choreographed ice dancing performance between two massive 14-foot-diameter orbs.
It’s fun stuff for our freaky moment in America and in a ski season offering some small reprieves from the ongoing pandemic and political upheaval.
“We’re very lucky that in this really crazy and strange and weird time that we can spread love and compassion and help people to smile,” Borkson said this week from Los Angeles.
He and Sandoval connected with Skico through the company’s contemporary art consultant Peter Doroshenko, a champion of their work who serves as executive director of Dallas Contemporary and who premiered an earlier iteration of “The Dance” there.
“The artists have always infused love and positive energy in each art work they produce, it’s all about creating smiles and laughter,” Doroshenko wrote this week in an email. “The partnership with (Skico) is a brilliant fit.”
To bring “The Dance” to Aspen, the FriendsWithYou team put the performance work on ice and also adapted it for the pandemic (in the original, the orbs physically danced with audience members, here they don’t mingle with viewers on the ice). But the ideas at the core of “The Dance” remains the same, its existential statement wrapped in an adorable package.
“It’s about the great duality of our existence — all of our wishes and ambitions and desires,” Borkson said. “It’s all a dance and we want to give it a sweet and fluffy and cute perspective. … What it comes down to is just vibing together, letting both of our dualities exist in the same world and play with each other.”
They proposed several other ideas for Aspen project, but the lightbox on gondola plaza was particularly important for Borkson and Sandoval. Situated atop the glass building where skiers load the Silver Queen Gondola, the glowing Little Cloud looks down on skiers in the socially distanced line in the mornings and shines over the are at night.
“The Cloud light was like a beacon of hope, like the bat symbol or something like that,” Borkson said, “calling for cuteness and love and sweet, soft feelings.”
Borkson, Sandoval and their team came to Aspen in December to install the “Little Cloud” lightbox on the gondola building and to oversee rehearsals of “The Dance” in Snowmass. The days were quiet, Borkson recalled of that stretch before the holidays when the artists took in the COVID-quieted resort as it began the 2020-21 season without the usual hum and nightlife and crowds.
“It was like a ghost town,“ he said. “It was strange to be there.”
But the novel experience of collaborating with a ski area operator has been fulfilling and thrilling, continuing the 16-year tradition of Skico’s “Art in Unexpected Places” program that brings contemporary art to its slopes and passes.
“Everybody in Aspen has been really amazing and supportive of the project,” Borkson added.
The gondola plaza installation is expected to remain in place through the end of 2022. And Borkson said locals should expect more public FriendsWithYou works to emerge between now and then.
FriendsWithYou has been running for two decades, as Borkson and Sandoval created their characters, refined their bright and uplifting aesthetic, and aimed to bridge the gap between the fine art world and the masses.
Along with sculpture and performance in museums, galleries and public venues, the “FriendsWithYou” characters are featured on the animated Netflix show, “True and the Rainbow Kingdom” and their Little Cloud character was a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2018.
Borkson describes FriendsWithYou as a mix between the Walt Disney Company and Andy Warhol’s Factory.
“We want to develop something much larger than ourselves,” he said. “The goal is really to make a major impact in the world.”
They drew inspiration from Takashi Murakami’s “superflat” concept and how the superstar artist — who designed the 2015-16 Skico lift tickets — managed to work across the often-rigid barriers between the contemporary gallery/museum world and the popular entertainment.
So, something like designing a ski lift ticket that doubles as a piece of pocket-sized art was in keeping with the FriendsWithYou mission.
“It makes us really happy that we can make a little piece of art that people can take with them as well,” Borkson said. “It was inspiring to us. It’s a way to reach people in an accessible way.”
The pass series includes six varieties with varying bright rainbow colors and variations on Little Cloud.
“It gives you like, a little moment of reprieve from all this craziness that we’ve been experiencing,” Borkson said. “It’s this little happy amulet for your pocket.”
Early on in their collaboration, the pair set their FriendsWithYou sights on design, architecture, filmmaking and animation as well galleries and museums, spreading positivity with each cute cloud.
“We’ve taken that to heart over the past 20 years, trying to see how we can really affect culture beyond the idea of selling artwork, which is mostly what being a fine artist has turned into,” Borkson said.
When the partnership was announced in November, Skico president and CEO Mike Kaplan praised the inspirational power of Borkson and Sandoval’s work.
“While talking to our guests and community this fall, one thing has become exceedingly evident, skiing and riding feels more vital than ever, and so does lifting one another up and sparking joy in the little things,” he said in the Nov. 18 announcement. “Aspen Snowmass has always been driven to delight and inspire everyone that visits this incredible place, and our collaboration with ‘FriendsWithYou’ does just that.”
The Aspen projects are among several installations in the works around the world, Borkson said. FriendsWithYou is also currently working on a second television show – a live action series with puppets from the FriendsWithYou universe. Borkson describes the project, still in development and untitled, as “like the Muppets and all about love and empathy and teaching diversity — something that our world really needs right now — in a fun and whimsical way.”
That message has been baked into FriendsWithYou from the start, when Borkson and Sandoval were put off by profit-motivated artists and sought a different way.
“That’s always been gross to us, that money was the end goal,” he said. “So we made our end goal world peace.”
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The Youth Art Expo will run Feb. 27 through March 14 at the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing work by young artists from Aspen to Rifle.