The 2017-18 Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. Endowed Artist-in-Residence returned to her alma mater to christen the old Alliant Energy building, which is undergoing a major renovation into the college’s new student union, recreation center, and athletics facility. The fabric sculpture was suspended from a moving crane and displayed for a limited time in April inside the Powerhouse, which is now a construction site. (The building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2019.)
Born in Missoula, Mont., the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Browder is known for producing large-scale fabric installations that are unique to a site and usually designed to drape dramatically across building exteriors. “Power Plant Beloit” was Browder’s first interior installation and her first kinetic one.
Her work, striking in color and design, has been shown nationally and internationally, but her creative process is what best defines her art. Browder works for weeks—sometimes months— with people in the locations where an installation will occur to curate fabric and sew pieces from start to finish, inviting residents of all ages and skill levels to help donate, pin, and sew fabric to create a final piece that usually stays up for less than a week. She even teaches amateurs how to sew and encourages people to come to sewing sessions frequently. She often visits local schools to sew with students, wearing what she calls her “sewing lady” round glasses and clothing as colorful as her artwork.
Browder’s obsession with participatory art is a breath of fresh air in a contemporary climate of social-media-fueled non-cooperation. She wants to celebrate the identity of the Artist (“with a capital A,” she emphasizes) in herself, while nudging everyone else to interrogate that identity in their own lives.
“When you call yourself “an artist,” a huge change happens,” she says. “Our society believes that artists are allowed to do whatever they want. You are given that freedom.”
Browder’s Beloit connection came through Warren Palmer. The recently retired professor and chair of the economics department is a fellow Missoulan who encouraged Browder to attend the college.
After graduating, she received her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then taught at the Art Institute of Chicago for the next seven years before realizing she “just needed to do art.” Browder credits Beloit with helping her find her voice as an artist. As part of her senior project in 1998, she enlisted the help of the college’s public relations department, which put out a press release announcing the arrival of a prestigious traveling art show by a famous SoHo-based artist named David Felitianos. But Browder had completely made him up, dressed the part for photographs, and even compiled a lecture about “his” work, which she did herself. The story was picked up by local newspapers.
“It was just fake news to the nth degree,” Browder says with a satisfied smirk.
“The goal was to talk about what happens when you call yourself an artist. What does it mean in our society when you name yourself that? Who decides who gets to be ‘famous’?” Browder has taken that question with her throughout her career, working out of her 400-square-foot studio in Brooklyn for the last 10 years. She’s amassed an impressive following on Instagram (almost 3,000 followers under the handle @browdertown), and her textile work has taken her all over the world. Her large-scale installations were born out of proving herself to the unyielding world of New York artists—which historically legitimizes male artists more than females. “When I was just starting out in New York, many people thought painting was the top and fabric was craft,” she says. “I was constantly fighting that stereotype. As a rejection to that, I started covering buildings and was like, ‘Screw you guys, I’m gonna go as big as possible.’”
Though her work ends up being massive, Browder starts small with locally donated materials for her installations, collecting as much as possible in varied colors, styles, textures, and sizes. Most donations for the Powerhouse came from bins set up around the city of Beloit. A retired Alliant Energy employee, Karl Wedel, even shared his old power plant uniform, with its union patches and tiny burn holes, to be used as fabric. Throughout the two-week sewing period, Browder promoted public “sewing days” that popped up around the city. Volunteers gathered to sew at the Merrill Community Center, the Beloit Public Library, Beloit Memorial High School, and at Beloit College, including in Professor of art Mark Klassen’s sculpture classes in the Wright Museum of Art.
At the sewing sessions, Browder developed friendships with those who showed up regularly, like Beloit native Joyce Ronan, who attended every session, often for the whole day. Ronan’s love of sewing and quilting has been a lifelong hobby. She received frequent shout-outs by Browder on her Instagram feed, and both have agreed to a reunion in New York in the future.
As a Beloit student in the 1990s, Browder recalls the Alliant Energy plant as an alluring but obscure building. “You would drive past it or see it so often because it was right next door and wonder ‘what’s functioning there? What’s it like in there?’” Browder said it made her excited to do a piece in the old power plant because “it was a transition from old Beloit to new Beloit.”
“Power Plant Beloit” was viewed by groups of hard-hat wearing spectators in the Powerhouse over three days in April before it moved to the college’s Sanger Center for the Sciences. Many who came to see the brightly colored work of art also had a hand in creating it, and Browder wouldn’t have had it any other way. Her journey as an artist is about bringing everyone else along.
Kelsey Rettke’15 is a freelance writer based