Lee Zimmerman (8-24-09)


Cultures throughout history have gone through cycles of construction and destruction. Like the threads of a fabric, culture is woven by the people that create it. Like a rip , a catastrophe can tear at this fabric, seemingly destroying that which was built. Even though the threads of the culture may be gone, the remaining parts of the fabric retains a memory of what was. Even though the people may be gone, echoes of the culture sing from the objects they touched, the earth they moved, and the breezes that carried their voices. This echo can be heard if we listen closely.

The artwork "Waterfall" is symbolic of this cycle. A tower of humanity made of dyed silk, drained by the natural elements, flowing into a pool of memory, then dispersed like seeds in the wind.

Inspiration from New Orleans

The original inspiration for this work is New Orleans. Before moving to Duluth, I lived for eight years in New Orleans. Both of my children were born there. When Katrina hit, all I felt was horror. From my viewpoint, Katrina looked to be a true Diaspora. A crushing blow, spreading the people away from New Orleans, diffusing her essence, killing her extreme beauty and dousing her unique sense of life.

But in the time since Katrina, something special has happened. With the return of people, the core of New Orleans has returned – a little battered and much more poignant. Later, years later, I am filled with amazement at the resiliancy and strength of the people who have returned and not given up on her spirit.


New Orleans, like all great port cities, is tragically at risk of being destroyed by that which gave it birth. A port city is built at or below sea level. It is exposed to the ravages of wind and water. Because these cities are intertwined with the cyclical vagaries of nature, their fortunes ebb and flow like the waves that lap at their shores.

This was very evident during Hurricane Katrina. Heat from the Gulf of Mexico powered the hurricane, as the wind and rain pushed the storm surge into the city – ripping homes off their foundations, tossing cars around, and causing significant death and destruction. Even more frightening than the physical destruction that Katrina brought, was the hurricane’s impact on the community’s psyche. Dispersed across the country, the citizens who evacuated were isolated and alone with questions of what would remain to be salvaged of their city’s heart and soul.


As I was developing this idea, I realized that this kind of ebb and flow exists for all cultures. A catastrophe, such as Katrina, is simply an intense version of the sculpting that time and the environment has on all cultures. My goal is to capture a small hint of this idea through the "Waterfall" artwork.

The installation "Waterfall" described below, is meant to symbolize this cycle, the ability of nature to destroy and the ability of humanity to recreate, restore, and remember. The sun fades the waterfall, bringing the images closer to the white of the silk before its creation. The rain drains the dyes from the waterfall, draining the images of the people with it. The flowing dyes are captured by the bound shibori silk pool. Over time, the shibori pool builds up a pattern of the colored shadows of the people who were once there but have gone. The shibori remembers and records. In the end, the dyed silk is cut and shaped into blankets and scarves and dispersed to hospitals all over the nation to help people heal.


Detailed Description:

This is meant to be an outdoor installation, held in place by frame attached to a building. It is originally conceived to hang for several months outside, in an area that can be easily visited by the public both day or night. At night, the artwork will use low-power lighting to give the whole waterfall a stained glass look.

The basic structure is divided into two parts: the waterfall and the pool. The waterfall consists of about twenty to thirty feet of an five foot wide silk panel pulled taut along the frame. The frame and the silk panel would form a tunnel about four feet off the building and five feet wide. The panel of silk would be attached at the top and weighted at the bottom of the waterfall. The sides would be attached to the frame and the lighting would hang from the frame. This would allow climbing ropes to dangle through the tunnel

The Shibori pool would be an equal length of silk bound tightly in Shibori patterns – forming a circular base. The shibori binding can form three dimensional patterns reminiscent of ripples on the surface of the water. The bound silk pool would sit in a slow draining bowl. In an alternative setup, the shibori pool would be the last four feet of the waterfall, twenty feet of white silk bound in tight ripples.

The waterfall would be painted in place, using silk dyes, with a tower of figures. These figures would be both sexes and all ages. At the top of the waterfall, the figures would be much larger than life and visually thrust themselves out over the viewer - like the painted dome ceilings from renaissance Italy. The center of the waterfall would be smaller overlapping figures lending it a sense of distance. These overlapping figures will flow though each other and present no sense of volume or space. The bottom of the waterfall would consist of a dynamic blend of life size figures actively moving and pushing each other. This image structure would create a strong visual curve to the towering waterfall. The top of the waterfall would be composed of more natural flesh colors - the color of life. This color palette would change until at the bottom the figures would be composed of intense extreme hues - the color of dreams.

The painting would be done live during a hour long event. I would paint the silk surface from behind, using ropes to travel up and down the length of the waterfall. Accompaning this performance would be Kathy McTavish on cello.

Over the weeks that the Waterfall would be displayed, the natural elements will have a dramatic impact on how it looks and the way it changes. The wind will make the waterfall vibrate and seem to breathe. Heat will begin to bind the dyes to the silk fibers. The sun will slowly fade the dyes. The rain will drain the dye and the painted people away.

The rain, (the element of water) will make the dyes, that form the image, flow down into the shibori pool. Because the bottom is less protected from the rain than the top of the waterfall, we would expect the figures with the most intense colors to drain away. The dyes that created these figures would flow into the less bound fibers of the silk shibori pool. This creates a pattern in the silk of the shibori pool that is a record of the natural elements as well as a record of the figures of the waterfall.

Because we expect the natural elements of wind, sun, heat , and rain to dramatically change the artwork over its outdoor existence, the artist will return every one to two weeks to redefine the dyed images and to rebind the shibori pool. At the end of the outdoor existence, the resulting complete artwork (end waterfall and expanded pool) would be displayed indoors along with photographic images of its creation and the cycles it has traveled.

At the end of its life. the large silk panel would be cut into sections, steamed to lock the dyes into the silk fibers, formed into head scarves or small infant blankets and donated to hospitals all over the country intended for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or neonatal patients that were born too soon - in its dispersion, becoming a part of the cycle of the human condition, community and connection.

Proposed Schedule and Estimated Bugdet

The "Waterfall" artwork is composed of three distinct parts: Creation, Erosion (and Renewel), and Dispersion (and Memory). The target time of the painting part of the project is sometime after the beginning of June 2011. The best target for the waterfall artwork would be an event such as the Venetian Biennale or Prospect New Orleans.


This includes all actions for the artwork up to and including the initial painting of the waterfall: Fundraising, in kind donations, initial test runs, smaller scale events, advertising the events, rigging, construction and training, set up and painting. Many of these actions will be performed in parallel. The estimated Budget for this part would be about $25,000, which could be spread over several years and folded into multiple fundraising activities.

Erosion and Renewel

The environment and weathering are a key component of this artwork. I intend the work to be in place for at least two months. In that time, every few weeks the painting must be re-loaded with dyes. This includes reinforcing and re-adjusting the painting, re-binding shibori. These would be structured as mini-events with music which would include associated workshops on silk painting and other related topics. The workshops would be 4 hour in duration. These mini events would cost between $2000 and $3000 apiece. So for three month display with reworking every three weeks would cost another $20,000.

Dispersion and Memory

Display of the completed artwork along with photographic history, deconstruction of the silk panel into numerous scarves, distribution of the works across the country, with complete history of work. The scarves created from the artwork will be donated to at least ten hospitals across the country specifically for patients undergoing tratment for cancer. The history of the textual and photographic history of the Waterfall will form a touring exhibit along with the donated pieces. This would cost around $10,000 to set, sculpt and disperse the artworks.


Philosophy of the work

The Waterfall Artwork tries to capture this essence of a culture. The rain washes the people in the waterfall away. A reflection of their spirit is captured in the Shibori pool. With time, old images of the people are reinforced and new images with a new spirit are created in the waterfall. The natural elements will drain away some of these images – the pool again recording their spirit. And the cycle continues.

The waterfall is an artistic model of cultural cycles. It also offers a way of linking two fundamentally different artistic artforms that are expressed through silk and dyes. Silk painting involves driving the image directly into the silk fibers. In shibori the pattern is indirectly formed in the fibers of the cloth - a secondary effect of their three dimensional binding. The Waterfall Artwork would link these two methods into a single artistic voice.

In another way, this installation, undercuts much of what defines the core of textile art. A tremendous amount of energy is spent in the textile arts combating the effects of sun and water on the artwork. In this case, these effects are essential to the artwork. We want this work to capture something of the cycle of time, human culture, and nature. We are celebrating the impermanence and resurgence of life.


Artist Biography

Lee Zimmerman

Lee was born in Idaho and lived in New Orleans for eight years before moving to Duluth, Minnesota in 1998. He is a trained electrical engineer and has spent much of his academic life researching visual perception. As part of his research, he was drawn to the visual arts and about twenty years ago discovered silk painting.

Lee has written several articles in American Artists. He has exhibited his work in New Orleans, Santa Fe, Baltimore and Duluth. He has performed large-scale live silk painting with several different orchestras and dance companies. He performed live silk painting at the International Silk Painters Festival in Santa Fe in 2006, outside of London in the UK in 2007, and with Cirque de Symphonie and the Duluth Symphony Orchestra in 2009. His work was exhibited with the masters of Silk Painting at the 2008 International Silk Painting Festival.

Lee Zimmerman recently complete a successful live show called "A Story in Three Parts" in January of 2010. In February of 2010 he performed live silk painting and created the garden in musical "A Secret Garden" Over its three week run he 180 square feet of silk during each of the twenty performances.


A more detailed CV can be found HERE.


UPDATE - August 11, 2012

In Spring of 2011, I was able to do an hour long performance on a 36 foot tall tower of silk in an interior space. You can see information on that HERE and HERE. During this event I was able to work out many technical issues with painting something that tall. I have also worked events under some interesting wind conditions. I think that elements of this proposal could be re-worked but the basic fundamental idea stay consistent.