Sonya Rapoport at her home studio June 19.
Sonya Rapoport, 89, at her home studio in Berkeley. Photo: Julia Hannafin

By Julia Hannafin

Sonya Rapoport has something odd in her home art studio in Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood: a turntable underneath the floor. Her 1904 house was remodeled in 1916 to include a turntable in the garage. It’s a detail that holds great significance for Rapoport.

“The ‘kiva’ is a prayer place,” she explained. “A ceremonial building among the pueblos, where the American Indians lived. I did a long piece comparing my prayer place, which is my studio, with the kiva, which is the American Indian prayer place. I have lots of parallels. Like, my mascot was my cat, which I used to bring in, and theirs was a parrot. My tools were brushes; their tools were knives. Anyway, they have a hole in the kiva, and the spirits come up from the earth through that hole.”

She paused to smile and point down at the outline of the turntable in the wooden floor. “So, this is the hole in my prayer place where the art spirits come up.”

This sort of engagement and imagination fits right into the style of conceptual mixed media art where Rapoport built her career. She got her master’s of fine arts at UC Berkeley in 1949 and has been a Berkeleyan ever since. Her latest project, “ImPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS?“, an interactive exhibit, is on display now at Fresno Art Museum.

Rapoport’s enrollment at Berkeley was driven by serendipity. She had been studying art the Corocoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., where she lived with her husband Henry, when he was offered a professorship in chemistry at Berkeley. Young and unsure on how to further her education, Rapoport followed her husband across the country, where they struggled to find a place to live. As luck would have it, a fellow chemistry professor, Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin, offered for the couple to live with him and his wife. They accepted, and one night at the dinner table, after Calvin and Rapoport’s husband were done discussing the chemistry department, the conversation turned to her. “Well, Sonya, is there anything we can do for you?” they said. She had just one name: Erle Loran.

“I was reading Erle Loran’s book on Cézanne … And this was my bible. I didn’t look at the front page that [said] Erle Loran was a professor at Berkeley. So when I got [to Berkeley] and unpacked my books, I saw that he was, which was a miracle. So I really wanted to meet him,” explained Rapoport. “[So I said] ‘Do you know Erle Loran?’ Well, it just so happens that Mrs. Calvin worked with Mrs. Loran at the juvenile court, so they set me up with an appointment with him, and he tutored me. He tutored me for 25 years.”

Rapoport graduated from Berkeley in 1949, around the beginning of the abstract expressionism movement. Following the movement, her work in the ’40s and ’50s explored the abstract human form. “The influence that [UC Berkeley] had on me was structure: art structure, space, design, rhythm, and drawing, and that kind of graphics. But content-wise, it didn’t have an influence. But the fact that I went into — you could call it ‘new media,’ ‘digital art,’ ‘conceptual art’ — I always have that structure as a background to what I’m trying to say,” she said of her time at Berkeley’s art school.

By the 1960’s, Rapoport turned her sights to other styles, beginning the “pattern painting” movement and eventually creating her first interactive artwork — a style of conceptual art that would set her apart from her contemporaries and define her as an artist for years to come.

“What I was doing — but I didn’t realize I was until someone mentioned it to me — was that I’d go through a process of my own involvement in a particular project. Then I wanted other people to duplicate that process,” Rapoport spoke of her interactive artwork. “So that’s what I think got me into this. Then I started gathering data from the responses of the other people to my artwork, then that data became an artwork, then the data from that became an artwork, so I guess everything I do has a lot of phases, a lot of sequences.”

Each interactive artwork she has created involves a number of phases. Her first interactive piece, “Shoe Field,” which she recalled with excitement, was an interactive installation representing people’s feelings about their shoes and their interaction with other people’s shoes. People came in with their shoes, and waited in line to answer a number of questions about their shoes, then be photographed in them. They were given two numbers — the number in line they were, and their shoe charge (an average of all the questions they were asked). Then the results became the artwork.

The original flyer for the first 'Shoe Field' interaction and the data plot behind it, which became its own artwork.
The flyer for a “Shoe Field” interaction in 1986 and the data plot behind it, which became its own artwork.
The flyer for a “Shoe Field” interaction in 1986 and the data plot behind it, which became its own artwork.

“So between the charge number and the number they were given in line, those numbers were put into a force field plot program, and it made a beautiful plot. It was like a Navajo plot. And you could read, from that whole plot, how the people responded to each other — in other words, what influence the person in front of him had on the person behind him,” explained Rapoport.

“Shoe Field” did not end there. Through the project over the course of over 16 years, Rapoport produced five interactive installations and four artist’s books about people and their shoes.

Longtime colleague and collaborator in digital arts Judy Malloy spoke of her artistic process: “It is an innovative conceptual process that utilizes both information and evocative imagery to inspire audience participation.”

Rapoport’s newest interactive exhibit, “ImPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS?”, now on display at the Fresno Art Museum, is just the beginning of a series of collaborative installments. The interactive artwork combines her original pattern and design (P&D) paintings that she made in 1966 with pictures of advertisements she found in the New York Times, a great source of inspiration for her. Upon learning about the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley for their work on marketing design and matching theory, she added another dimension to the artwork that combined art with economic science. The theory explores how people, institutions and companies select each other to create stable matches (and has been used, for example, to optimize medical internships, match kidney donors, and assign children to schools).

She first matched what looked like an ad from the New York Times to go with black and white glossy photographs of her P&D paintings. To add an element of interaction with her audience, she picked a selection of media headlines. At the current installation in Fresno, each headline was made into a sticker, and the museum-goers were told to stick each headline to the composite artwork they think it best fit.

Each painting has long graphs underneath them, showing the choices of different viewers.

A few of Rapoport's composite artworks with her original P&D paintings, the New York Times ad, and the headline choices beneath them.
A few of Rapoport’s composite artworks with her original P&D paintings, the New York Times ads, and the headline choices beneath them.
A few of Rapoport’s composite artworks with her original P&D paintings, the New York Times ads, and the headline choices beneath them.

Fascinating video of the exhibit offers yet another angle at the artwork, showing the different participants choosing a headline for the piece and explaining why they made the choice they did. Based on the explanation, Rapoport chose an economic term out of a set of ten or so that had a connection to the person’s reasoning. She then connected the economic term to one of Basquiat’s paintings.

To top it off, she organized a few different data-gathering events in which groups of participants matched the headlines to each composite image. In some settings, unlike the Fresno Museum, after a headline was matched to a composite image, that headline and composite image was removed from the exhibition, leaving only nine headlines for re-matching with the nine remaining composite images.

This difference in choice, environment, and selection will be compared in a way that produces an artwork of its own. “ImPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS?” invites viewers to engage with artwork in a collaborative and influential way; each interaction will in turn produce its own artwork, which will link to another. Rapoport’s influences combine with both the product and process of the interaction of her viewers to her artwork to make for long, conceptual timelines for each project.

Sandy Friedland, a longtime friend of Rapoport’s, described the artist as “an energetic, bright, inspiring woman … someone who has continually reinvented herself, adapted to the digital revolution, and revisited her old work with fresh eyes and a nod to current events.”

When asked where she finds inspiration, Rapoport laughed. “I don’t have trouble finding ideas, but they’re always connected with something,” she said. “They’re a continuum, a sequence…”

Sonya Rapoport’s “ImPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS?” is at the Fresno Art Museum until Dec. 29. You can find more information online at the Fresno Art Museum.

Julia Hannafin is a summer intern at Berkeleyside and a student at Columbia University studying creative writing and American studies. She writes for the music blog The Metropolitan Jolt.

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