On a chilly November afternoon, Lauren Redniss, a visual artist and writer, is camped out for the day in a tiny room in the depths of the Lincoln Center home of New York City Ballet. In recent weeks, this underground spot has been her home-away-from-home as the featured artist for this year’s Art Series, the Company’s annual Winter Season art installation, now in its eighth year.
Redniss is conducting interviews with NYCB staff members—not the dancers or musicians with whom audiences are familiar, but the behind-the-scenes people who keep the Company humming, like Shoe Room Supervisor Linnette Roe, who oversees 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes annually, and head of security Clem Mitchell, who studied fingerprinting at Scotland Yard before coming to New York City Ballet 35 years ago.
Redniss has created large-scale, vividly-colored portraits of more than 100 NYCB staff members. “There’s something ineffable about a person that you can try to get at in a drawing,” explains Redniss, a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and associate professor at the Parsons School of Design. “Likeness is important to me, but more important is the feeling of the person, the look in their eye.” The ultimate destination for the artwork will be the Promenade of the David H. Koch Theater which Redniss will transform into a vibrant 360-degree gallery celebrating the many people who are typically unseen and unsung but who are crucial to the day-to-day life of New York City Ballet.
“I wanted to give people a different perspective on the Company, something that would add depth and meaning to their experience of coming to the ballet.”
The 104 people that Redniss interviewed highlight the breadth and variety of off-stage jobs, from call center operator to music librarian to head of electrics Iris Novick, who oversees, among other things, fog and haze and onstage pyrotechnics. In 20-minute interviews, Redniss discussed each person’s work, following the conversations in unexpected directions. Redniss uses two battery-operated recorders and the sketchbook she’s never without.
Oral history is at the heart of the work that Redniss is best known for—three volumes of blazingly original, category-defying visual non-fiction that seamlessly integrates original artwork, written text, and design.
These include Radioactive, a “visual book about invisible forces,” as she puts it, which traces the scientific work and love story of Pierre and Marie Curie as well as the reverberations of the Curies’ discoveries through time. Radioactive was the first visual book to be a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction. (The book has also been turned into a forthcoming feature film of the same name.) In Radioactive, Redniss weaves deep research, poetic prose, and arresting drawings with archival photography and a hand-made typeface. The cover glows in the dark.
Thunder & Lightning was published in 2015 and received the PEN/E.O.Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. The book is a meditation on weather, with lyrical artwork and rigorous reporting. Redniss’ new book, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West, a multigenerational saga about the effect of copper mining on the lives of two families in southeastern Arizona, will be published in April 2020. Redniss cites working as a child at her grandfather’s small grocery store in Worcester, Massachusetts as a formative part of her artistic education. “Business was slow and there were all these great materials around,” she says. She built mobiles out of rubber bands and small sculptures from candy wrappers and recycled cigarette cartons.
Her grandparents were master storytellers with a gift for detail. Her grandfather recalled his time as a private stationed in Europe during World War II, describing the Italian towns he experienced from the back of a truck and the day Rome was liberated. “I’ve always had a powerful feeling that time was moving faster than I wanted it to. I wanted to preserve these stories as a way of slowing down time,” she says. In college, she began tape recording her conversations with her grandparents.
Redniss studied at Brown University in Providence and took classes at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Soon after graduation, she began contributing to The New York Times, creating visual narrative pieces for the Op-Ed page that looked at issues in the news in unexpected ways. These evolved into a series of profiles of centenarians for the Times. Eager for a larger canvas, she immersed herself in a project that looked at the American century through the life of one person who had lived that entire span of time. Her subject was Doris Eaton Travis, a Ziegfeld Follies girl who lived to age 106 and intersected with some of the most colorful figures of her day. The result, Century Girl, became Redniss’ first book.
Redniss is no stranger to dance. Her mother was a modern dancer and regularly took Redniss to see companies like Pilobolus and Mummenschanz, as well as NYCB. “Jacques d’Amboise, Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent—these were the stars of my mother’s world, and they were very much a part of my childhood,” explains Redniss, who still knows her way around the NYCB repertory.
“I’m thrilled to be working on this project,” she says. Invited to create this year’s Art Series by NYCB’s Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan, Redniss says, “I almost fell over when I saw Wendy’s name in my inbox.”
This story originally appeared in New York City Ballet’s Winter 2020 Playbill.