Stephen Talasnik grew up in South Philadelphia in an area defined by oil refineries, suspension bridges, dirty highways and a noisy airport.
As a kid, the first sculptures he built were with toothpicks, inspired by a visit to Hershey, Pennsylvania, an aging industry town with the chocolate company's theme park.
“I fell so in love. I was seduced by chocolate and roller coasters in the same trip,” said Talasnik, who spoke to the Gazette in early October from his studio, in a Hudson Harbor industrial complex with views of the Statue of Liberty.
It makes sense that a town like Hershey — part industry, part playground — would captivate Talasnik’s imagination. He describes rollercoasters as the first organic skeletal structures that he’d seen. Built by hand and figured out before the aid of computers, these structures fascinated and frightened him.
“I was terrified of riding, but interested in the shapes," he said. "They were very organic and baroque, with these turns and twists, and how linear they were.”
These skeletons of engineering inspired his artistic pursuits as an adult, though Talasnik thinks of himself more as an inventor than an artist. "Part of the invention process is the childhood curiosity that is associated to ‘what if,’ ” he said.
Talasnik specializes in making large things seem intimate, and builds temporary and permanent sculptural projects called “land art." He's one of several sculptors whose art dots the land at Tippet Rise Art Center, located just outside Fishtail.
Economies of scale
Talasnik's work caught the eye of Tippet Rise founders Peter and Cathy Halstead, who invited him to Montana in 2016 to build a site-specific sculpture on the 10,260-acre center.
“I came in contact with my very first genuine cowboy, who was waiting for me as I got off the plane,” Talasnik said. As a kid who grew up in South Philly, the only cowboys he’d ever seen were on television.
Tippet Rise functions as a fine art center on a working sheep and cattle ranch, which explains the cowboy chauffeur. As they rattled across the landscape, Talasnik was struck by such vastness.
“Growing up on the East Coast, scale is vertical. When you go out to Montana, scale is horizontal,” he said. Such a measurement challenged Talasnik, who could size up a building easily. “You can tell it's 80 floors to the top, which means there is a top. When you look at the land in Montana, you can’t tell how big it is.”
Arriving at Tippet Rise, Talasnik asked the Halsteads, “How big can I make it?” He was told, “As big as you want.”
“It’s like giving a kid a $10 bill and putting him in a candy store and telling him to get whatever you want. Ten minutes later, he can’t decide what he wants.”
Talasnik said he spent his first year working at Tippet Rise trying to figure out scale. “As an artist, you are constantly confronted with the notion, how big can I make something and how will it be received by the land?”
He played a game: How big is that tree? As well, he learned to watch for snakes and experienced his first herd of cattle. “I had never seen cattle, except in pictures.”
Roaming the acreage, Talasnik found an area that is approached from above and drops into a protected area, shaped like a bowl, where he would eventually complete “Satellite #5: Pioneer.”
“I knew from the get-go I wanted to work with a bowl,” Talasnik said. “They have the greatest potential to create something that has tremendous intimacy within the vastness of the panorama.”
Viewers can see the sculpture from a distance when entering the ranch, and then approach it from above. Made of intricately stacked poles and long planks of wood, “Satellite #5: Pioneer” is a melding of Talasnik’s overwhelmed sensations of the land around him with a narrative between the structure and the land.
“One of the objectives was to make 'Pioneer' on a scale that a human being can comprehend,” he said. Looking at the work, there's a sense that it landed there. It doesn’t feel out of place, but it does feel incomplete, like bones of a structure, which invite the viewer into the work.
“All of my work is skeletal on purpose,” Talasnik said. “You as a human being are going to dismantle or continue; the piece always has the feeling of being unfinished, but it’s always complete.”
In this way, Talasnik's works become theater, begging for interaction. Though it’s named after pioneers, he was less influenced by manifest destiny and settlers heading west as he was by space exploration of the 1950s and 60s, inspired by human’s motivations to set out and discover of far-off places.
During the past couple of weeks, Talasnik has been working at Tippet Rise on a new project that he’s titled “Hive” inside the Art Center’s performance hall, which they’ve affectionately dubbed a “music barn.”
It's the center's first indoor exhibition, and it's habitable. Two performances will take place within the creation, a "hand-woven habitat" made from flat reeds and will be just large enough to house a solo performer. Bozeman-based violinist Angella Ahn was be the first performer to try out the structure on Oct. 19, and cellist Ilse-Mari Lee performed in the "Hive" the following evening. Ahn and Lee are professors of music at Montana State University.
The show coincided with the release of Talasnik’s newest book, "Unearthed: Stephen Talasnik," featuring the artist’s drawings, sculptures, and installations, available through Monacelli Press.
According to the artist, "Hive" is part of an ongoing concept series of hand-woven habitats, which will be installed next in the Architektur Galerie Berlin, a venue that showcases unconventional architecture. "Hive" at Tippet Rise is temporary, and will be removed following the performances and exhibition tours.