Becky Wareing Steele’s Challenging Interpretation of Utopia at the Fine Arts Center

By TOM BYRON

  Right now, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, visitors can get an inside look at a utopia. Or as Denver-based sculptor Becky Wareing Steele sees it in her new exhibit “Utopia: A New Society for All.” 

 Its main focus is a 160:1 scale diorama of a village at the base of a waterfall, including houses called “Earthships,” a community center, and a farming greenhouse. Each one of the houses is paired with an individually painted figure, representing a specific “citizen” of Utopia, all of whom are people who chose to join the project. 

  Wareing Steele built this diorama, out of wood, foam, clay, paint, and other modeling materials. However, the exhibit also includes floor plans and designs of the various buildings, a national anthem, a flag, and an application process for any visitor to become a “citizen” of Utopia. All of these other portions of the exhibit were at least partially designed by other people working on the project, and voted on by its citizens.

  As explained at the start of the exhibit, Wareing Steele began the “Utopia” project in 2017 in part as a response to the political and ideological division brought to the forefront of the national consciousness by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She created her piece to bring people together and to experiment with building community. The project “falls under the category of a socially engaged practice, a type of art where the process of collaboration, participation, and interaction is as much a part of the artwork as the art object itself.” This is shown by her use of a flag, which Wareing Steele designed based on suggestions from Utopian citizens, who voted on it before it was finalized. 

The anthem, which Nathan Hall composed, based its values on the community’s suggestions that it should “focus more on the future than the past” and that “the music was easy enough for all to sing.” It is another example of art melding with community engagement. Even the buildings in the diorama itself, from the plants in the greenhouse to the design of the houses to the floor plan of the community center, were all designed and approved by Utopian citizens before Wareing Steele constructed them as a part of her installation. 

The wall outside the exhibit is meant for visitors to share their response to the project, using paper and pencils provided by the FAC. Many of these responses are deeply political, even cruel in their wording. One of these responses calls the project “a far left fantasy that erases individualism … a collective hive mind,” while a different person scribbled, “You = facist [sic]” underneath the original response. Another simply states “Capitalism gave us SLAVERY,” with a string of responses beneath it, including “CLASS TRAITOR!” and “BRAINWASHED MORON!” ,

Most other responses to the exhibit are less intense, tending to focus more on individual interpretations of the piece. It is unclear which of these types of response Wareing Steele anticipated or desired, but she has certainly been effective in her efforts to evoke an emotional, and in some cases, political response.

Waering Steele will come to the FAC on Sept. 27 at 5:30 p.m. to give a talk on her exhibit. The exhibit will remain at the FAC until Nov. 3.

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