Ryan Findley
The Tool at Hand

Hongtao Zhou at Sweetwater Organics

By - Nov 28th, 2011 04:00 am
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Sweetwater Organics, the urban fish farm in Bay View, is making a name for itself in urban food production. But Sweetwater is not only a farm, there is also the Sweetwater Foundation, a non-profit organization who’s mission is to marry art and science. The idea is to bring art and culture to science and food, and vice versa. In this spirit, Sweetwater hosted a live art performance on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

Hongtao Zhou is a Madison-based artist originally from Northern China. He holds degrees in interior design, furniture design and a Ph.D in Furniture Design & Manufacturing. He is currently seeking an MFA in Sculpture and Woodworking from UW-Madison. He has exhibited all over the world, from Beijing to Milwaukee. He has built ice chairs on Lake Mendota, and recently returned from Northern China where he built ice furniture. He designs for the place he is showing, in both choice of piece and materials used.

At Sweetwater, Hongtao built a chair using of a frame of found twigs and branches held together with twine, then covered in wax to give shape and fullness. The wax was recycled from waste at the university and the ends of donated restaurant candles. Using a slowcooker, Hongtao melted the wax and then transferred it to a pan with warm water, where he added cold wax chips. This created wax with a clay-like consistency that could be applied to the twig frame, pressing and molding into the desired shape and thickness.

The audience was invited to participate. Kitchen gloves were provided, and people could step up, sink their hands into the pan of clay-like wax, grab a handful and mold it onto the chair. One participant described the experience as “sensual.” Hongtao laughed that he was “almost like a chef,” gesturing behind him where Sweetwater’s fish and vegetable farm thrives in the giant hall on the other side of the wall. The process was situationally appropriate to the surroundings.

Hongtao created this wax chair in the Foundation Room of Sweetwater for an exhibition opening Dec. 8 at the Milwaukee Art Museum called “The Tool at Hand.” Sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation dedicated to preserving and interpreting their collection and stimulating research and education in the decorative arts, 16 artists were invited to create a piece of work using only a single tool.

“For centuries, artists and artisans have felt a particularly intimate connection to their tools,” said Ethan Lasser, curator of the exhibition for the Chipstone Foundation. “Tools have been described as extensions of the body, and in certain cultures, they have been revered as sacred objects with lives of their own.”

The artists will display their work at MAM from Dec. 8 through April 1, 2012. They each work in different mediums, and works will range from paintings to Hongtao’s wax and twig chair. The tools used range from a simple paintbrush to a dental drill. Hongtao himself initially thought his tool was the hotpot used to melt the wax, but he realized as he began to create the chair that the tool he was really using were his hands. His hands, the simplest tools any artist, or any person, can possess.


Categories: Art

0 thoughts on “The Tool at Hand: Hongtao Zhou at Sweetwater Organics”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ryan great story and first-rate writing. Thanks. — Strini

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