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In the Studio: Material Manipulation

Sculptural works by Dylan Conner and Melissa Noble dare to defy gravity.

As we prepare for the 41st M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition on March 29, our “In the Studio” series gives readers the chance to get to know the artists behind the work. See what inspires our School of Art grad students!

Whether suspended by translucent, barely visible threads or perched delicately along a wall, the sculptures in the studios of Dylan Conner and Melissa Noble appear to resist the pull of gravity. 

Though made from heavy everyday materials — concrete, plaster, steel — the works on view appear buoyant, almost weightless. Both Conner, an accomplished sculptor, and Noble, a former aerial dancer, work with a deft hand, masterfully manipulating the material to achieve a sense of lightness that asks viewers to reevaluate familiar materials through a new lens.

Learn more about Conner and Noble in our Q&As below!

Dylan Conner, Sculpture 

Where do you find inspiration?
Most of the inspiration comes from playing with materials, kind of investigating their physical properties. The versality of concrete is exciting to me; all the different states it goes through before it becomes a solid structural form is really interesting. 

Can you describe your creative process? What goes into creating these large-scale sculptures?
I usually start with loose drawings, which then develop into ideas that are easier for me to convey in three dimensions. I’ll develop a form with steel and kind of “draw” three dimensionally in space, letting the forms develop that way. Then I may bring the casting process into them, introducing that liquid factor.

The key to my process is trial and error. Because each sculpture is a completely unique form, and I’m dealing with a huge amount of weight, these are at a size that is basically the maximum scale that I’m able to work with in my existing studio by myself with my equipment. It’s about pushing the materials to the max. 

What drew you to sculpture?
I feel like I didn’t even really make a conscious decision, it just started happening. A lot of it comes from my love of craft and working with tools. Both my parents got their B.F.A.s from UH, and they’re the kind of people who fix everything when it breaks around the house. We were always improvising and using materials around us to fix things, finding creative solutions. So I grew up watching my parents always working on projects like that. 

As a practicing artist with a number of public art commissions under your belt, how has the master’s program impacted your work?
The cool thing about being in grad school is the community that you develop around you. Also, I thought I knew the Houston art scene pretty well before I came to UH, but coming here gave me a completely new perspective on the city I grew up in. It goes to show you there’s always more, and you can always go deeper.

Melissa Noble, Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms 

What are you working on as your prepare for the thesis show?
I’ve proposed three projects for the thesis show. “Concrete Falls” — that’s the one with the hanging concrete — is a project I did testing the tensile strength of monofilament (or fishing line), seeing when it would break. Because of that experiment, I got interested in monofilament, materially, so I started making nets with it — they’re kind of invisible, and it’s interesting to me to have this big, sculptural thing that you can’t really see. The third piece will be in the courtyard and is related to my history with aerial dance. It will be four pieces of rope hanging from the banisters of the second floor that are open for people to play on. I find that people like to swing, swinging is such a comforting thing, and I wanted to make something interactive that people could use or touch. 

As someone with a background in both visual arts and dance, how has the Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms (IPEF) master’s program helped you grow as an artist?
It’s given me the time and space to be able to explore these ideas. I have really ended up somewhere I never thought I would be. When I started, I thought I would stay in performance because of my background in dance, but now I’m really interested in materials. 

How do you hope audiences will react, or interact, with your work?
I hope they will engage! Especially with the rope piece, which will be in the courtyard. I’m interested to see what happens when people come into close contact with what I call the “invisible sculptures.” I’m curious to see if people will have to get really close because they don’t see them right away; I’m interested in that moment of discovery.

The M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition opens at Blaffer Art Museum on Friday, March 29 at 6 p.m. and will be on view through Saturday, April 13.