Taking Art to the Streets
Kouns (above left) leads some young volunteers from her studio in Greenwich Village
to Washington Square Park, where her lampshade art is on display through the end of
November. (Photo by Anna Morris, 2005, www.annashoots.com)
For Marjorie Kouns ’79, art is something that lives beyond the walls of a gallery.
Story by Rachel Hatch
Several years ago, Marjorie Kouns ’79 watched as a sunbeam crept out of her ground-floor,
art-filled studio near New York City’s Greenwich Village, where she has worked for
years. “That shadow captured a moment,” she says. “I envisioned it happening all over
the city.” Her vision led to a series of what she calls “Urban Sundials” — lines of
color painted on New York City streets that outlined the shadows of some of her favorite
buildings. Kouns didn’t paint alone. She invited people from the buildings’ neighborhoods,
onlookers, and people passing by to help. “For a lot of the work I do, I would say
having people engage in the process is essential to the art,” she says.
This summer, Kouns took her love of outdoor art onto an even larger stage with a two-part
project called “Well-Lit Chess Pieces” that adorns Washington Square Park until late
September. In the four corners of the Greenwich Village park, she has placed 26 colorful,
intricately designed shades over lampposts, as well as 11 large-scale chess pieces
that stand behind the pondering chess players who regularly inhabit the park’s southwest
At an outdoor concert in July, oversized lampshades gave Washington Square Park the
cozy ambience of a living room. (Photo by Anna Morris, 2005, www.annashoots.com)
The whimsical work, which was funded with several public art grants, fulfills Kouns’
dream of providing an artistic experience for the masses who pass daily through the
park. “People will see these as they go to work or take a walk and it will alter their
daily pattern, what they are used to seeing everyday.”
Finding a project to match the scale and spirit of the lively, nine-and-half acre
park — bustling in the warmer months with jugglers, university students, street musicians,
skateboarders and bench warmers — was a major challenge. “Washington Square Park is
known throughout the world, so I wanted to create a multidimensional work that would
reflect the game of life in a way everyone could understand.”
Kouns’ affection for green, public places dates back to her childhood in Melrose Park,
Ill. Her father’s status as parks and recreation director for several Chicago suburbs
meant that she had a parade of outdoor activities to choose from each summer — all
free of charge, she adds with a chuckle. “Well-Lit Chess Pieces” is, in part, dedicated
to Kouns’ father.
Another element of Kouns’ public art — an affection for the playfully surreal — is
evident in a story she recalls from her freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan when she
decided to turn her residence hall into a light show. “I convinced 90 women in Ferguson
to turn on and off their light switches in sequence,” she says, laughing at the memory.
“I had to use a starter gun — the kind from track races — to coordinate it so they
would know when to switch.”
Kouns credits Illinois Wesleyan for giving her the foundation to turn her passion
for art into a flourishing career.
“IWU was the perfect incubator for me to grow as an artist. My teachers were more
like mentors. They understood the art world because they were in it,” she says, adding
that many of her former University professors — including Walter Thompson, Donna Page,
and Ed McCullogh — supported her on the development of her Washington Square Park
project. “They were like my cheerleaders,” says Kouns.
An internship with a sculptor in Chicago during her junior year whetted her appetite
for more real-world experiences. “I came back to Illinois Wesleyan and felt like the
Road Runner in a turtle race,” says Kouns. “I was spinning in alpha-artist mode to
get everything done.”
Her senior year, she trekked east to see if the New York City art world fit her style.
With the help of Illinois Wesleyan faculty, she landed a spot in a show at the Lincoln
Center. “I knew then I was ready to jump off the springboard into the rest of my life,”
While based in New York City, she has often felt the desire to broaden her artist’s
palette through travel. In 1985, she decided to move to Paris for a year after seeing
an ad in the Village Voice for a 12th-century villa for rent. “Paris was a vibrant
scene,” she says. “It’s amazing to immerse yourself in a culture and learn about it.
It reflects in your art.” During her stay, she even outlined a Paris church, a prelude
to her “Urban Sundials” work to come.
Kouns explores interactive art with her continuing “Body as Canvas” project in which
she colorfully paints participants as they move to music. Above, dancer Marisa Maffia
exhibits Kouns’ artistry in motion at New York City’s China Club. (Photo by Anna Morris, 2005, www.annashoots.com)
When she returned to New York, she renewed her interest in interactive art with work
such as the continuing “Body as Canvas,” a provocative blend of dance, music, and
art in which Kouns paints the bodies of participants as they move. “I love to use
dancers,” she says. “I paint and they perform for a captive audience. It’s very visual.”
Another continuing work, “Made by Hand,” has traveled worldwide, including Beijing,
where Kouns was artist-in-residency at the United Nations Fourth World Conference
on Women in 1995. A collection of handprints from women, the display was intended
as a means of crossing language and cultural barriers. “Hands have had a universal
symbolism since the beginning of time” she says. During the Beijing conference, Kouns
invited women to take part in the installation by drawing their hands, signing their
names and countries of origins, and hanging them with the hundreds of others she had
collected. Wherever the display travels, an area is set aside for people who want
to add their own handprints to the installation. Kouns enjoys observing the participants
as they hunch over the worktables, “almost like children.”
No matter where she travels, it is New York’s Greenwich Village that she considers
home — and her desire to decorate Washington Square Park reflects her fondness for
that home. But the magnitude of her latest project also expresses a new scale of artistic
ambition. “You really have to have a filmmaker’s mentality” to match that ambition,
Kouns says. “You might think you can do it in a year, but then it takes five.”
As she learned in her earlier work on “Urban Sundials,” public art requires well-documented
authorization through a host of bureaucratic entities, from the sanitation department
to the community board. Seeking funding can require even more time and effort.
“How do you build a project like this? One meeting at a time,” says Kouns.
“You need to learn how to deal with phones, faxes, e-mail, grant applications — and
develop a real business acumen.” Partly, that means mastering “business speak,” she
explains. “I learned when a ‘no’ means a ‘maybe,’ and how much money is really there
where someone says ‘no money available.’”
Oversized lampshades gave Washington Square Park the cozy ambience of a living room.
A total of 26 of the festive shades were installed by Kouns and her helpers to cover
the round, grimy lamps located at the park’s four entrances.
(Photo by Anna Morris, 2005, www.annashoots.com)
Though exhausting or frustrating at times, what motivates Kouns throughout the process
is the idea that her art is truly serving a community function. “I tried at first
to make my work successful,” she reflects, “but I found when I gave up trying to make
people notice my art — that’s when they took notice.
“When I began to realize what it is like to serve the community through art, that’s
when it became a success.”
Helping people see their everyday world with a heightened sense is the essence of
the artist’s mission, Kouns believes. “It’s all about altering someone’s perception,
even if only for a while.” Seeing smiles on the faces of Washington Square Park patrons
as they catch a glimpse of one of her lamps or chess pieces is all she needs to confirm
that it was all worthwhile.