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An industrial revolutionary: Chakaia Booker’s radical sculptures reshape history 

By MARRIE STONE

Embedded in the treads of every tire are bits of evidence. Rubber absorbs the history of places a car has traveled. Dirt, glass, rock, and other accumulated debris become part of its story. When the sidewalls wear thin and the tread grows bald, the tire is tossed. If lucky, it lands in the hands of abstract sculpture artist Chakaia Booker. 

An industrial tripych

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Chakaia Booker’s sculptures, created from recycled tires, are on display in Heisler Park through the beginning of October

Booker began collecting tires in the early 1980s, feeling an affinity for the raw material a tire represents. Growing up in the industrialized grit of 1950s New Jersey, she witnessed the waste left in the wake of a commercialized nation. Her urban surroundings made an impact on her psyche. Old tires lay strewn on the city’s streets, ripe for Booker’s imagination. She began salvaging scraps of rubber from alleys, auto body shops, and dumpsites. Eventually her work became well enough known that Michelin knew where to take its retired products, sending her old tires from motorcycles and racecars. Her sculptures earned her the moniker “Queen of Rubber Soul.”

“When you use any discarded material, it always comes with its own history,” Booker said in a 2003 interview for State of the Arts. “It has the history of the manufacturers that actually produced the product. It has the history of the person who utilized it, and what happened to it along the way through its travels. It could be collecting paint or dirt or stones or glass or anything. Once I utilize the material, all of this is information that’s in the actual piece.”

Three of Booker’s works – Gridlock, Pass the Buck, and What’s Not – have been on display in Heisler Park since last fall. Constructed in 2008 and 2009, the works have traveled from Westchester, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., to Chicago’s Navy Pier. They’ve spent the past year in Laguna Beach. With every public installation, history continues to etch itself into their skins. Look closely and notice where people have carved themselves into the work. “Tracy” and “Ryan” and “Nacho” all left their mark. “DLXL” visited on May 7, 2017, when the exhibit was still in Chicago. The temporary installation will be removed from Heisler Park next month, where its story will continue to unfold and be told in a new environ. 

An industrial group

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Gridlock” appears in the foreground, “Pass the Buck” in the center, and “What’s Not” in the background

Perhaps you’ve studied these sculptures several times, or maybe you’ve passed by them without thought. It’s possible you’ve missed them altogether. Regardless of your familiarity with the pieces or reactions to the art, there are things you should know about these works – and their industrious creator – before they leave. 

A sociological artist of international acclaim

Although Booker received a Master of Fine Arts degree from City College of New York in 1993, she first studied sociology at Rutgers University in the mid-1970s. Perhaps it’s that training that informs her art, inspiring her to examine cultural and political issues over matters of mere aesthetics. Implications about race, gender, class, and environmental concerns are all embedded in her pieces. 

As a result, Booker’s sculptures resonate with an international audience. Her exhibits have been installed across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although she began working in the 1980s (with her first group exhibition taking place in 1984 and her first solo show in 1991), Booker’s work gained extensive notoriety when she was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She received an American Arts and Letters Award the following year, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005.

Now her work resides as part of the permanent collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Akron Art Museum, Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, and several others. 

Sculpting the sculptress

Chakaia Booker begins each day by first sculpting herself. Shrouded in layers of colorful fabrics and ornate textiles, Booker recreates her image each day. Born in Newark, N.J., in 1953, Booker grew up in a family that sewed. Her grandmother, aunt, and sister were all seamstresses, and her mother had a keen interest in fashion. “I grew up seeing these people create works of art,” Booker told State of the Arts in 2003. “I get up in the morning and I begin to sculpt myself. Those things that I do are the things that you see in the work.” 

An industrial portrait

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Courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach

Chakaia Booker begins each day by sculpting herself in fabrics and textiles

For Booker, every act can be a form of art. Cooking, sewing, dressing, and other daily rituals are each a form of artistic expression. Booker draws energy from the experience of sculpting herself into her garments. 

While the materials she uses in her sculptures are industrial, and the labor required is physical and intensive, her techniques are drawn from years working with textiles and fabrics. The edges of each piece of rubber appear stitched and sewn to reinforce their edges. She cuts, twists, bends, and weaves the rubber into textured layers resembling swatches of fabric, secured with screws and bolts instead of thread. Much of her work is meant to weather the harsh elements of the outdoors for years at a time, so she relies on fabricated steel frames and the durability of thick rubber.

Rubber as metaphor for the body

As issues of race, class, and gender continue to escalate in our national discourse, Booker’s work stokes important conversations. Consider the metaphor of the material itself. Like human skin, the color palette of the tires is never uniform. Booker points to the color contrast in her sculptures between carbon black, ebony, and grey that mirror the African American experience. “Colorism” is a charged discussion both within the black community and the nation at large. 

“When you think about a person who’s a painter, their color is their palette,” Booker said in that same 2003 interview. “In my palette, I have the patterns from the tires. There’s a very charcoal black. You can also have a very light sort of steel grey. Initially, looking at the tires, I thought they looked like the textiles and African art. The sculptures better created the sort of ‘scarification’ that happens in Africa.”

An industrial closeup

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

The rubber bears the marks of its history. Not all pieces are uniform in color, and many have been scarred by time, wear, and human markings

Scarification, a somewhat common practice in Africa, is the process of burning, etching, branding, or cutting the skin into designs and textures that permanently modify the body. Wounds can take six to twelve months to heal into scars. Often considered a cultural sign of beauty, the marks are more visible on darker skin than tattoos. Scarification, otherwise known as human branding, was also common during slavery as a method of marking slaves. 

Booker makes no effort to conceal the scars in her material. “Michelin” and “tubeless” and “radial” are readily visible in the work. Model and serial numbers imprinted in the rubber remain as archeological artifacts in its skin, never letting the viewer forget the long history of the repurposed object. Much of Booker’s work alludes to the toll time and life events take on us all. Our bodies all bear the marks of the many roads we’ve traveled. Most of us have remade ourselves in countless ways. Her sculptures bear witness to that process.

An industrial Gridlock

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Gridlock” symbolizes a human’s life and journey. The concave and convex spaces suggest the strands of a DNA double helix. 

The masculinization of femininity

One of the more striking things about Booker’s work is the sheer physicality required to produce these sculptures. While the patterning, sewing, and weaving suggests traditionally feminine arts, rubber and steel require a great deal of strength. 

Booker’s pieces can weigh up to one ton, requiring cranes and other heavy equipment to lift them into place. Consider that an average tire weighs 20 pounds and is roughly 1/4 inch thick. Cutting each piece demands effort. Rather than needles and thread, Booker uses band saws, saber saws, miter saws, reciprocating saws, and drills to shape the rubber, molding it into loops and knots.

“If you’re trying to put [the rubber] into a particular position, you must hold on for dear life and get your elbows, knees and body into it. The tire can snap back and knock you out,” Booker told Victor M. Cassidy for his 2011 book, Sculptures at Work. Tai Chi, yoga, and weightlifting help keep her up to the task. 

Booker challenges gender roles as she happily gets her hands dirty amidst the grit of rubber and steel, immersing herself into the industrial space. 

She also embraces the feminist ancestors who came before her. Pass the Buck is a specific homage to Madam C. J. Walker, the first Black female millionaire in America. Born in 1867 to parents who once served as slaves, Walker made her millions by developing hair products for Black women (like herself) who had lost their hair. The “Walker System” catapulted her to financial success, much of which she donated back to Black communities and colleges. Inspired by Walker’s philanthropy, Booker sculped Pass the Buck to celebrate Walker’s success and her willingness to give back to society. The swatches in the piece resemble the shape of American bills, layered atop one another.

An Industrial Pass the Buck

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Pass the Buck,” constructed in 2008, is an homage to Madam C. J. Walker

From certain angles, Pass the Buck looks like a roaming animal, giving rise to consideration of tires as symbols of mobility and transit. By implication, flat tires (as several of these presumably were at one time) trap their owners – like Walker’s enslaved parents – in stasis.

The environmental impact of Booker’s work

As climate change edges into our daily lives, Booker’s recycled tires provide a stark reminder of the impact industrialization has wrought on our planet. Given their durability – and how well they’ve weathered the elements – it’s difficult to look at one of Booker’s pieces without considering where these billions of used tires end up. 

“My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as part of their environment as one piece of a larger whole,” Booker said in a 2003 edition of Sculpture Magazine

What’s Not – a piece that suggests a window, or maybe a mirror – literally frames its audience in industrial waste. As people pose for photos inside the frame, can they help but subconsciously contemplate being surrounded by objects that typically end their short lives in landfills?

Still, What’s Not is beautiful with its wisps of Medusa-like “hair” and loops that look like leather. The striking sculpture frames the Pacific Ocean beyond, beckoning folks to stop and peer through. 

An industrial What's Not

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“What’s Not” frames the Pacific Ocean, inviting viewers to step inside and consider themselves as part of the planet’s environmental picture

The Laguna Beach Arts Commission pays homage to Booker

The City of Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Department and the Arts Commission worked for two years to bring Booker’s sculptures to our town. The exhibit was installed in October of 2020 and will leave next month.

“The conversation which led to this exhibit was initiated by Nathan Mason, Curator of Exhibits and Public Art at the Cultural Affairs Department for the City of Chicago,” says Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl. “We really appreciate Nathan introducing the City of Laguna Beach to Chakaia, and the opportunity to share her work with the community. We hope the collaboration with Chicago continues and that artists of the international renown of Chakaia will consider our city a destination for their work.”

“I have loved Ms. Booker’s sculptures since I saw an installation of her work in Millennium Park in Chicago,” says Adam Schwerner, Chair of the City of Laguna Beach Arts Commission. “Since then, I have met with her in Laguna Beach as the Arts Commission worked to find the perfect place for the long-term loan of a trio of her pieces in Heisler Park. Meeting her and, then, hosting her work here in Laguna has been a pleasure. I love seeing how visitors to Heisler Park have been interacting with her pieces; they use them as places to take photographs of one another and sit in their shade. I have seen kids using them as a home base during chase games. Thank you, Chakaia Booker, for your artistry.”

While the exhibit leaves Laguna next month, hopefully the conversations it inspires will continue. Perhaps our town – like Booker’s tires – absorbed a bit of the sculptures’ presence, their time here becoming part of Laguna’s long story. History leaving its mark.