Ari Fish: Communal Transformation

Themes of spirituality and the sacred drive this Kansas City artist’s sculpture, performance and installation works.

“I like bad-ass women,” Ari Fish said in a recent interview, “and I want to celebrate them. They just keep on going on, no matter what.”

It may be more politic to say, “women who lean in” than bad-ass, but despite her blue-eyed blonde, angelic appearance, Fish does not dissemble. Bad-ass, for this woman artist, is strictly positive. It means someone like herself: doing what you have to do and doing what you want to do with no fear and no apologies. And no whining.

Fish incorporates aspects of the Bible, freemasonry, Buddhism, the tarot, numerology and astrology into her ongoing “Temporary Temple” and “Prayer Robe Project” series.

Fish came to national attention in 2008 when she was chosen, just two years after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, as a contestant in the sixth season of the popular reality show “Project Runway.” Someone from the Lifetime TV channel had seen her clothing designs in the annual West 18th Street Fashion Show, and after two interviews, Fish was asked to participate in the competition.

“I was filmed when I wasn’t aware of it. I was then the first contestant to be eliminated in front of six million people. At the closure interview, they tried for half an hour to make me cry, which I refused to do. I was sequestered with the rest of the contestants for six more weeks. The experience changed my whole brain chemistry.

“But it made my art better. I learned that I can’t do something I’m not positive about. There is good out there and you want to feed the good. I need to make something of purpose.

Fish now has a flourishing career that incorporates sculpture, performance, ritual, music, clothing design, video and drawing. Currently she is completing “Gilded Attrition,” an outdoor installation at the Kansas City Museum. She is also working on “The Changing Room,” a one-night performance piece curated by Travis Pratt for The Pop-Up Art Lot, in which viewers can try on various robes from her ongoing “Prayer Robe Project.” (The latter event, on October 27, is held in conjunction with the International Sculpture Conference, which is in Kansas City that same week.)

In addition, Fish works full time as the academic and career adviser for the Kansas City Art Institute, and is the single mother of six-year-old Iko, named after performance artist Yoko Ono, one of her favorite bad-ass women.

“Gilded Attrition” brings much-needed attention to the Kansas City Museum. It is one of multiple events celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Charlotte Street Foundation, a Kansas City-based arts organization that offers free studio space, and gives grants and cash awards annually to local artists.

“The museum is located in an area that was considered a sacred site by the indigenous peoples,” Fish says. “Copper metal tools were excavated there years ago. Some of the limbs of a cherry blossom tree on the museum’s lawn point towards the Missouri River. I am covering them in a material that resembles copper moss.

“The installation gives due respect to the majestic view of Kessler Park and notes the importance of the Missouri River to the development of the area,” Fish says.

“Gilded Attrition” may ultimately become a permanent museum installation.

Fish grew up in Lee’s Summit, one of four siblings of a single mother who was an educator. “I was eight when my mother put me in wrestling, and I was a competitive swimmer from ages three to 18. That’s why I understand Matthew Barney’s work (a filmmaker and performance artist whose work often involves extreme physical activity). So much of his “Cremaster Cycle” (five films from 1994 to 2002) is about training, and as an athlete I get that. That kind of discipline informs a lot of what I do.”

Initially Fish thought she would become a journalist. After attending one of KCAI’s summer programs for high school students, she changed her mind and later enrolled at the art institute. She got a degree in ceramics, taught various art classes, and was regularly selected as a visiting critic, before being asked to become academic advisor for the school.

Fish was roommates for some time with fellow artists Jaimie Warren and Peggy Noland. The trio, with their varied, dynamic art practices, were part of a new generation of female artists that helped transform the Crossroads into a destination site. Although each worked in a broad range of media, all were involved in performance art. (Warren, best known as a photographer and video artist, recently moved to New York and Noland, primarily a textile artist, went to L.A., while maintaining a studio here).

That sense of the communal has always been a component of Fish’s art. “I really want my work to be accessible to everyone,” she says.

She continues to design clothes for various artist clients, and in the past created such signature clothing collections as her menswear “Post Apocalypse Collection” and the “Berlinicher Collection.”

Since the birth of her daughter, Fish has been vocal about the importance of spirituality in her work, and she incorporates aspects of the Bible, freemasonry, Buddhism, the tarot, numerology and astrology into her ongoing “Temporary Temple” and “Prayer Robe Project” series.

The first “Temporary Temple” piece, “Speak and Spell,” was performed at the Tompkins Projects Gallery in Brooklyn, and consisted of a two-person robe that connected the wearers with a veil. “Temple Number Two,” a hallucinatory, metaphysical installation work, was performed in Kansas City after Fish won the Charlotte Street Award.

Each “Temple” installation focuses on some aspect of a human being’s path to consciousness. She will soon complete “Temple Number Six,” which will focus on the journey toward enlightened love.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Fish’s 10 “Prayer Robe Projects. “The Changing Room” event in conjunction with the ISC conference celebrates this. “It will be an installation that allows the robes to rise above the audience and then be lowered down to them; people can try on all ten robes in the series. There will be floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and people should feel transformed as they focus on the different stages of their life.

“I want this event,” Fish says, “to be an immersive experience.”

“Ari Fish: Gilded Attrition” on view now at the Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd., continues through the two-year renovation of the museum.

“The Changing Room,” a one-night performance piece by Fish curated by Travis Pratt for The Pop-Up Art Lot, will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at 3014 Southwest Blvd.

About The Author: Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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