A Walk on the Beach, 1991. Bronze and terrazzo with mother of pearl, detail of installation at Miami International Airport.

Human Nature: A Conversation with Michele Oka Doner

Oceanic myths and images inform Michele Oka Doner’s grand public art projects and sculptural forms. She has embedded miles of terrazzo floors at Miami International Airport’s North Terminal with bronze shells, pearls, starfish, and other sea-life forms and has created terrazzo floors with botanical and scientific motifs for other institutions. Oka Doner’s sculptures mine interrelations between humans and natural forms such as coral and trees. Her headless, armless figures appear ancient and timeless, seemingly formed from vines, roots, stems, bark, or coral, with textures that suggest natural phenomena—oozing, dripping, or shot through with tiny openings. Her porcelain Soul Catchers and tattooed dolls use original hieroglyphs to explore notions of body and soul.

Unlike the haunting forms of Magdalena Abakanowicz and the distressed torsos of Manuel Neri, Oka Doner’s footed figural fragments evoke things newly emerging and rooted in nature—two-way metaphors for planet earth and its human caretakers. Dale Lanzone, director of the Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea frames it this way: “On a very personal level, Michele explores and grapples with the human being’s relationship to nature. We are from nature yet we separate ourselves because of our abilities with abstraction. We left Eden.”

Oka Doner’s Miami airport project was completed in 2008. This year, she is finishing installations for Port Everglades, 23 large metal pieces and three cast bronze chandeliers for Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in New York City, and a print series for Wildwood Press in St. Louis. In 2009, her Soul Catcher installation of 500 unique porcelain and iron oxide sculptures is showing at Nymphenburg Porcelain in Munich; in January 2010, Soul Catcher will be on view at the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jan Garden Castro: I thought that we would start with a quotation from your book, Human Nature: “I speak another language, not of the tongue but of the eye.” Could you talk about the eye and your fascination with coral, pearls, and natural phenomena related to the sea?
Michele Oka Doner: I grew up in Miami Beach, a few blocks from the ocean, so for 18 years, I was watching the ocean, or smelling the ocean, or seeing how the light bounced off that huge body of water so close by. Miami Beach, after all, is a small, long barrier island, and if I wasn’t seeing the ocean, I was seeing Indian Creek, Biscayne Bay. It was very watery, which meant that life was reflected constantly in a sparkly, crystalline way—in really extraordinary light.

The other side of that was what was opaque, meaning what the water brought up—many interesting concretions and accretions, things that weren’t readily recognizable. I would see what are called carrier shells, which are somewhat recognizable shapes, but distorted—the remains of dead shells had been accreted to them by lime, or bits and pieces of coral had been accreted, or barnacles grew on them in colonies. It was extraordinary, as a child, to see objects, stones, shells, and minerals; it was the beginning of what I’d call a lifetime romance, certainly a relationship. …see the entire article in the print version of September’s Sculpture magazine.