Art Student Stages Ithaca Falls Installation

Jenn Houle at Featherlight
Jenn Houle (M.F.A. '15), at left, uses bald eagle sculptures crafted from plastic bags as shadow puppets. William Staffeld / AAP
crowd at featherlight
A crowd gathers to watch featherlight (foul falls) on September 26. William Staffeld / AAP
shadow puppet
One of the five bald eagle sculptures used by Houle to create shadow puppets on the walls of the Ithaca Gorge. William Staffeld / AAP
Jenn Houle (M.F.A. '15), at left, uses bald eagle sculptures crafted from plastic bags as shadow puppets. William Staffeld / AAP A crowd gathers to watch featherlight (foul falls) on September 26. William Staffeld / AAP One of the five bald eagle sculptures used by Houle to create shadow puppets on the walls of the Ithaca Gorge. William Staffeld / AAP
News
October 2, 2014

Art student Jenn Houle (M.F.A. '15) tapped into the local histories of silent film production and gunsmithing with featherlight (foul falls), an installation she presented on the evening of September 26 at the Ithaca Falls Natural Area.

With colored lights and shadow puppets that doubled as kinetic sculptures, the installation "morphed the stone walls of the gorge into a modern-day cave painting," Houle says.

Houle crafted five bald eagle sculptures from recycled plastic bags to use as shadow puppets. The bird sculptures began with Houle researching specimens in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's taxonomic collections. The walls of her studio in the Foundry are filled with painted renderings of bird and animal life.

A native of New Hampshire, Houle taught art for kindergarten through eight grade students in Boston before coming to Cornell.

"I've always loved and been interested in animals [and] how other beings perceive the world," she says. "A lot of my work focuses on the intersection of humans and animals — the difference between us as organisms, the interconnectedness of us as species on this planet, and the spirituality I find in that."

During featherlight, Houle projected colors into the waterfall with 1,000-watt halide construction lights and created a shadow play of birds on the site. She filmed and took still photographs of the installation to add to a body of work she is generating.

The falls was the site of a temporary installation by artist Hans Haacke in the Cornell-sponsored Earth Art exhibition in 1969, and was also used by silent filmmakers, including the Wharton brothers, a century ago.

Houle's work also aims to create awareness of the lingering environmental threat of lead contamination around Ithaca Falls, she says. The Ithaca Gun Company, formerly located above the site, used hydropower from the falls — and over its 104-year history, gunsmiths shot lead ammunition directly into the falls for testing. (Featherlight also was an Ithaca shotgun model.) The surrounding area, contaminated by lead and chemicals used in manufacturing, was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency before it was decontaminated from 2000 to 2004. There are still high levels of toxins there, however, Houle says.

"In the city, there is a proposal for three alternative cleanup processes," she says. "I'm not doing this to point a finger at anyone — it's more to bring this into public awareness. I know it will feed into my other work; a public art piece is something I've wanted to do for a long time."

The project was supported by the Cornell Council for the Arts, and the student group Friends of the Gorge also assisted on the night of the installation.

Adapted from a story written by Daniel Aloi, Cornell Chronicle