Living Art: MoMA Teens Collaborate with Artist Paula Hayes

Paula Hayes and the Art and Science teens working on our living sculptures

What does it mean to own an artwork that will never look the same from one month to the next? And how does an ever-changing, living sculpture tweak our preconceptions of what it means to conserve an artwork for posterity?

Offered once a year, our Art and Science of Conservation workshops bring teens into the amazing (yet often overlooked) world of MoMA’s Conservation Department, giving them the chance to tackle questions such as those posed above, and to explore a world that many Museum visitors don’t even realize exists. Over the course of twelve sessions, the Art and Science teens get a chance to work closely with the incredibly skilled specialists who make up the Museum’s conservation staff, in the process learning about the philosophy and science behind this important field.

This season, aiming to connect the teens with contemporary artists and their work, we reached out to the artist Paula Hayes, whose amazing Nocturne of the Limax maximus has been installed in the main Museum lobby since November 17 (and closes soon, on April 18). We knew that this artwork was a perfect piece for us to focus on, due to the issues that it raises about sustainability and conservation. And after e-mailing and talking with Paula over the phone in the weeks leading up to our collaboration, we knew we had found the perfect artist to work with. Paula immediately impressed us with her warmth and put us at ease with her unpretentious and friendly personality.

From left: the Art and Science teens viewing the installation with artist Paula Hayes; Paula points out details in her work.

On the day of our collaboration, after a few minutes of introduction and small talk, we traveled into the galleries with Paula in order to view her installation in person. Once in front of her work, the teens asked questions regarding her practice and listened as she talked about her personal artistic process and the myriad ways in which she comes up with her ideas. (Warm baths and YouTube videos that her son sends her both come into play!) She talked about the nurturing aspect of her artwork, and how it felt to continually care for her pieces even after they have left the confines of her studio.

Afterward, the group returned to our studio space in the lower levels of the Cullman Education Building. Once there, Paula introduced the idea of “sustainable cities” that we would be using as inspiration for our own artwork. We watched videos about sustainable city projects, which have been cropping up all over the world, and discussed the core philosophy and importance behind the movement.

From left: some of the raw materials we worked with; Paula assists with putting down the first layer of sand.

Finally, it was time to begin creating our artwork. Paula introduced us to the materials we would be using: three large molded-plastic drawers, a growing medium made from coconut husks, aquarium gravel, neon sand, tiny ferns, ficus plants, and moss. She walked us through the needs of each type of plant, and how we would have to layer the materials within the boxes in order to keep everything alive. We broke into groups and started with the sand and gravel.

From left: Paula makes designs in the sand with her fingers; adding plants to our sculpture.

It was beautiful watching the bright colors pile up against the sides of the clear plastic boxes. On top of that went the growing medium, and on top of that we planted the moss and other plants. In keeping with the sustainable cities theme, we used wood and plastic blocks to symbolize buildings and structures. Throughout the process, Paula moved from group to group, lending guidance and offering words of encouragement.

From left: another view of the sculptures in progress; seeing the layers through the side of the container

Once the artwork had been created, we entered into a second stage: keeping it alive until its debut at our Teen Art Show, this coming Friday. We set the entire thing up in an unused cubicle in the Education Department offices, and hooked it up to a timer and grow lights. The teens have come by before the start of each week’s workshop to water and care for these living sculptures. In this way, we find ourselves connected to Paula Hayes’s artistic process, as well as exploring another aspect of what it means to “conserve” a work of art. The piece that goes on display on Friday will not look exactly like what we created with Paula, yet it will still be the same artwork. It will also still be in the process of growing as a piece, and our time keeping it alive will continue far into the future. In the best way possible, our time with Paula, and with the Museum’s Conservation Department, is changing everything we thought we knew about both making and conserving a work of art.

From left: our work, with grow lights turned on, in its temporary home in the Education Department offices; Art and Science teens and Paula pose in front of their "finished" product.

The Spring In the Making and Art and Science of Conservation teen art show will be on view from Friday, April 15, to Monday, May 9, in the lower mezzanine of the Cullman Education Building. More information about our FREE art-making classes for teens can be found at the MoMA Teens website.