Teresita Fernández: Unapologetic artist

Seattle Cloud CoverConceptual artist Teresita Fernández is designing public art for Harvard Yard. The space, she says, raises crucial questions for her imagination. 

By Isa Flores-Jones '19

I caught up with Teresita Fernández at the end of Wintersession week in January when she was done teaching the JAMS seminar Arts, Imagination, Democracy: Public Arts in Practice. Fernández, who is a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Foundation fellow, has designed sculptural work for spaces such as MASS MoCAMoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others nationally and internationally.

Seattle Cloud Cover
"Seattle Cloud Cover" by Teresita Fernández is in Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, WA. Image: Wikipedia
The Brooklyn-based artist spoke with me about her research process and the intricacies of designing art for Harvard’s campus. Hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Fernández will give a free, public lecture 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at Piper Auditorium in Gund Hall.

What was the goal of the winter-session program?
I will be creating a public art project in the Old Yard this coming September. So I was asked to teach this class to get students involved in my process. I also wanted to ask and answer some crucial questions: about the intersection of art and activism, and social justice and democracy and imagination and beauty. We tend to think of those things as discrete and separate spheres. My idea of art making isn’t just putting up a structure in the Yard and calling it “built art.”

What should a public art installation bring to a space?
We perceive Harvard as public because the gates are open. Tourists can walk in. But even within that sense of “being there” because you’re supposed to be, there’s a sense of belonging. Or of not belonging. There’s a sense that some people are made to feel they belong. Who is made to feel that they don’t? We can measure this kind of “belonging” in different ways, the demographic of the community, for example. But we can also consider the things that are harder to measure: how you feel in spaces. And I’m interested in creating public art that’s immersive. I’m interested in sites not only as physical coordinates but as people and places. It’s about building a social structure that correlates to it, so that the artwork marks a space, but creates it, as well. So that the people who use that space can have agency over it.

Teresita Fernández
Teresita Fernández Photo: Noboru Morikawa

How do you create that collective agency?
The first thing I did was to try to understand the Harvard community. And I don’t necessarily like that word “community” because I think it’s misused, to mean everything and nothing. When we talk about public art or putting the public in public art, people’s idea of “public” is mutable. And it depends who’s looking. As a person of color, my first place to look is often where we find invisibility: to look to marginalized groups within Harvard’s walls. The first thing I did was Google Latina student groups here at the school. And it was difficult! It was difficult to find much of anything. Certainly no physical space, no physical archive. So you have to interact with folks, enter the community, to really do that kind of research. But that’s just one lens: my own, reflecting me, as a Latina moving through space. We all operate with these different lenses. I’m interested in the way those different kinds of focus intersect. I see public art as a site that offers or carves out a new space for anything the public wants: spontaneous happenings, dance performances, poetry readings. Sometimes they are planned or choreographed. But also a space for spontaneous responses, as well.

If you had one word to describe your art-making process, what would it be?