Originally published in the Oak Leaf, Santa Rosa Junior College's Student Newspaper on Oct. 6, 2008.
Donna Larsen isn’t just an artist; she’s a nurse, administering beauty to the drab buildings of New York City and currently, the walls of the SRJC Art Gallery.
Larsen, SRJC art instructor, treated the lifeless and abandoned edifices of the Big Apple with unexpected gifts of beauty and is “Right Here, Right Now” to give students and faculty alike a taste of the same medicine.
“I did this because I wanted people to have some sweetness,” Larsen said.
The gallery is filled with visual offerings: caricatures of bees as a symbol of hope, Dollar Store flowers as an inquiry on beauty, images of apples from her garden represent nourishment.
After photographing street art for more than 10 years, Larsen decided to become a participant. She wanted to bring a sense of joy to passersby, a remedy to the negative energy she observed in most street art. One day, she came across a horrific image of a baby sawing his leg off with the words “spit vomit” above it. She thought people deserve to see something more beautiful.
She worked on sanctioned sites: buildings where artists have permission to produce their artwork on walls. Larsen used a wheat paste medium for her artwork. Images are printed on paper and adhered to a surface using a paste from cooked starch and water that disintegrates quickly within a couple rainstorms, or be acid-washed away. The work is done on abandoned buildings and construction sites that are about to be demolished or renovated.
Larsen is intrigued by the concept of non-permanence – how things break apart and reassemble. This viewpoint is presented in the exhibit by her unique vision of time being nonlinear. She photographed her street art at different periods and created a new whole out of the separate pieces. “I don’t want to do murals that are just pristine, I like the tearing down and building up,” she said.
There is nothing pristine about the work presented in the gallery. Her collages explode off the wall in jubilant jolts of rich texture and layers of jagged torn edges. This gives an impression of their original context. “I didn’t want to blanket the pieces underneath as most wheat paste artists do, but rather to use separate elements that worked into and around what was already on the surface to create a new image,” reads Larsen’s artist statement.
Larsen incorporates images from her life, like photographs of apples and flowers that she visually distorts with a Photoshop watercolor filter to take the imagery one step farther. It adds a mystical and luminous aspect to the work, making it seem otherworldly, yet still comprehensible.
In one of her pieces titled “Prayer Beads,” she creates a sense of unity and hope to remind people “we’re all praying for the same thing,” no matter what our spiritual beliefs. She worked on a piece by a street artist named Swoon. Her portrait of a deeply terrified figure in the post-9/11 era is accompanied by the words “every time I hear a plane, I look up and fear the worst.” Larsen glued images of prayer beads all over the figure as an offering of comfort.
Her street art and this exhibit is her gift. She hopes the work will fill viewers with a feeling of jubilance. Her artist statement reads, “It is my wish that in seeing these sites, the viewer can sense the possibility of beauty in unexpected places.”