Sitting at the intersection of art, design and academia, Penelope Forlano’s practice is diverse. With a portfolio that ranges from bespoke furniture to large scale sculptures in venues such as Perth Airport and various metropolitan secondary schools, this WA artist, designer and researcher evades simple definition.
With its multi-faceted surface, various angles and fragmented reflections, Forlano’s sculpture Counterpoints, Edition 1 of 3 has shades of its maker. Ahead of the work’s appearance at Sculpture by the Sea: Cottesloe, Nina Levy spoke to Forlano to find out what drives her multi-stranded work.
Nina Levy: Your practice spans three disciplines – how do you describe what you do?
Penelope Forlano: My career has always been related to the designing the built environment and our experience within it, but my work started shifting more into the categories of sculpture and public art.
My job title has been a steady series of slight transitions as well. My art practice is grounded in this background and my PhD with took on anthropological perspective and methods to inform my creative works.
The academic experience has consolidated what I know from practice but also given me greater insights. I explore people’s engagement with the built environment and their experiences through design, which is academically referred to as design anthropology, but I think it just causes confusion outside (and sometimes inside) the academic world.
I’m interested in how our built environment shapes us and how we shape it. I see it as all part of the same work, but a job title to encapsulate the extent of it all is hard to pin down, so I tend to go with artist, designer and researcher. If anyone has better ideas for better job title, I’m all ears!
NL: Were you interested in the visual arts as a child? At what point did you decide to pursue a career in visual art/design?
PF: I was always busy making something. I never stuck to one thing only. It was when my parents and teachers thought I was destined to be an accountant that I thought, I have to be more serious about art and prove I can succeed at something other than maths! I knew I loved creating and experimenting with ideas and ways of making things, but I wasn’t a natural illustrator. It was the three-dimensional arts that I was most interested in. Theatre set design, sculpture and places that felt like another world or change how you felt got me excited about spatial design and arts. So, I haven’t really moved on from that, now that I think of it in that way.
NL: How do the various strands of your career – design, art and academia – influence one another?
PF: My design, art and research all meld into each other so it all influences each other, but I don’t tend to think of them in distinct categories. Even my PhD was through creative practice so that was definitely making the disciplines intertwined.
Sometimes I think my work, as a result, is all so diverse, but then when I really boil it all down, I see constant threads and similarities. Some people have commented on the scope or diversity as unusual, or that my works are all so different – mainly because of the various mediums – but to me the designs for production and the designs that are singular and large scale or small scaled art are all so closely linked.
NL: You made your Sculpture by the Sea (SxS) debut at Bondi last year with Counterpoints, Edition 1 of 3. What made you decide to exhibit at SxS?
PF: I’ve been working on many large-scale public artworks in WA. Sometimes these projects can last for years. So, I decided to exhibit at SxS Bondi to test out a different market, in a different city and with a smaller work.
Personally, I also wanted the opportunity to watch how a diversity of people of all ages and cultures, interact with artworks in the landscape. So where better to do this than the beauty and allure of Bondi or Cottesloe?
It was wonderful to respond to such an amazing place with a significant history. It’s easy to have lots of ideas on how to respond to Bondi; it’s harder deciding on one. But ultimately, I knew this was a temporary exhibition location for the artwork and because my work is typically bound to site, this gave me the chance to create something that takes on different meaning and properties in various locations. So it was initially inspired by Bondi, but then started taking on other influences as well.
NL: Tell us about the process of making Counterpoints…
PF: I had completed a public artwork at Fremantle College that references the school’s specialist maritime education programs and its location close to water. The work uses stainless steel and we had worked through a number of challenges with the maker and installer to achieve the desired outcome. I thought it would be great to use this process of making for another project. Sculpture by the Sea was an appropriate fit.
I always start by researching the history of the site and its character. The solid and static nature of the 300-million-year-old Hawksbury sandstone juxtaposed by the wild and rough ocean was hard to ignore. I wanted to create something that was stone-like and ancient in form (referencing ancient stone spearheads) and also referenced the water in terms of a drop. The polished stainless-steel material gives it an ephemeral surface like water but evokes longevity as a material.
Pictured top: Penelope Forlano’s “Counterpoints” at Sculpture by the Sea Bondi 2018. Photo: Jessica Wyld.