Ringling alum's creations require a glass of a different color
Christian Sampson grew up in Bradenton, and his work with dichroic glass has landed him at the Sarasota Art Museum.
| 5:00 a.m. May 18, 2022
Arts + Culture
Room by room and light by light, young Christian Sampson found inspiration from an early job at the Ringling Museum.
Sampson, a Bradenton native and a former student at Ringling College, had the responsibility of walking through the museum early in the morning and making sure the light bulbs worked.
If they didn’t, he replaced them. But all the while, his artist’s eye was working. Now, two decades later, the acrylic, film and glass installation artist has a piece titled "Vita in Motu" enshrined in Ringling’s permanent collection. Sampson, based in Los Angeles, can’t help but think back to his time alone in the Ringling Museum and how it forged his future.
“I had the whole place to myself,” says Sampson, who visited his installation at Sarasota Art Museum in April. “I was studying painting at the time. I was noticing how different temperatures of bulbs affected the paints. They made blues different colors. They made reds warmer or cooler. I think that kind of influenced my work today; how you see color, how you see light, how paintings made by candle light were lit by halogen bulbs at the time.
"That was really influential in my art-making. I think it put me on the path to experimenting with light.”
Sampson, who has shown his work in Paris and all over New York, believes that growing up in Bradenton triggered his artistic appetites. The Manatee High School graduate can recall coming to Sarasota to visit a magic shop on Tamiami Trail, and he spent a lot of time at Ringling Museum even before he wound up working there.
The Sarasota Art Museum, which now houses his installation, was a high school rival where he played baseball. This wasn’t just a great place to grow up, says Sampson; it was a geographic anomaly that had him thinking about light and space as a youngster.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” says Sampson. “This is the West Coast of Florida. Geographically, we’re on the East Coast but we have the West Coast experience. I live in LA now; when I went out to the West Coast, I was like, ‘This is very familiar.’ We have the sunset and the way the light plays off the water.
"There’s a history of artists from the West Coast experimenting with light and space, and I think I got that. Growing up here, we have those sunsets. I grew up on the water and was always on a boat. I first went to the Florida Keys when I was 5; going underwater and seeing color was like the most amazing thing ever.”
Now, for future generations of residents growing up in Sarasota and Bradenton, experiencing Sampson’s "Vita in Motu" installation will provide many of the same sensations.
The installation — made of acrylics, glass and dichroic film — is on display on the third floor of the museum in the Jonathan McCague Arcade. Depending on what time of day you visit, you may get a totally different experience due to the rotation of the sun and the angle it hits.
The exhibit has a feel like stained glass, but it’s made of completely different materials. Sampson, who is married to painter Ariel Dill, uses cutting edge dichroic glass formed in Germany, and he also uses fused glass fabricated at Judson Studios, a venerable glass studio in Pasadena, California.
Together, the elements form something novel.
“I sometimes think of it as film,” he says of his installation. “I use film gels; and the way things are projected, you could look at it as a small moving film with the projection. Vita in Muto means life is in motion. It’s alluding to the way that it slowly moves, almost like projecting colors onto the sculptures and through the space. I studied film briefly. And when you think of it that way, I think it opens up a lot of interesting interpretation.”
You may be thinking that Sampson sketches things out or paints the way he wants things to look before he visits an installation. But you’d be wrong. He says that his style strongly favors chance; he wants to get into the space where his work will be displayed so he can gauge the way that light works there, but then he wants to figure it out as he goes.
When he visited Sarasota Art Museum and saw the space designated for "Vita in Motu," it fired his imagination.
He went back home and began shaping and forming pieces of the glass that he could move and adjust in different ways across the installation space. But then the actual art happened in a way that guided his hand.
“The installation was over three days so I could come at different points,” he says of interpreting the light. “And right away, there was a really strange moment. One of the forms came on the floor and it was like the symbol for the museum. It was moving quickly; it was something where I was just helping to place but it knew what it was doing.”
Sampson, looking back on his career, singles out the late former Ringling professor Leslie Lerner as a massive influence.
He says that though he doesn’t make art like Lerner did, he took cues from him in learning that the art world was a creative force to tap into that could guide him for the rest of his life. Shortly after graduating Ringling, Sampson moved to New York and started studying for a master’s in fine arts from Hunter College.
He drove a box truck to keep his artistic dreams alive, and there were points where he worked for galleries and for other artists.
It was a hustle, he says, to go from struggling artist to permanent collection.
“The thing about being an artist is you kind of have to work twice as hard,” he says. “You’ve got your studio practice, but you also have to make money for rent. I heard an artist say one time that artists are like pirates. They’re always looking for the next opportunity to create. When things happen big, they help each other, but there are times that are rough seas."
The waves broke for Sampson in about 2010 or 2011, when he crossed paths with a kindred spirit.
Sampson says that Pascal Rousseau, a France-based art historian and professor, helped break him to a bigger level by inviting him to show his work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
All of a sudden, he had gone international.
“I was a struggling artist,” he says. “When he emailed me, I honestly thought it was spam.
"But it was an amazing experience to have someone recognize your work and email to say, ‘I’m curating this show. Would you like to be a part of it?’ And I was just like, ‘What?'"
A few years later, says Sampson, the same thing happened again. But this time it was a meeting with Anne-Marie Russell, the former executive director of Sarasota Art Museum, that opened new doors. Russell had come out to visit his studio in New York because she had heard he was a Ringling student who was doing shows in Europe, and she came with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Sampson would have a chance to design a piece for his hometown museum’s opening.
Immediately, says Sampson, he was at home with Russell.
They understood each other. They spoke the same artistic language, and they both couldn’t get their words out fast enough.
Soon, Sampson was visiting the space and figuring out exactly how the light would work.
“I tried to figure out how can I use the grid on the windows with the sun from the east,” he says.
“I started bringing little samples and playing with how the color would go through, how it would hit the objects. As soon as I had the samples in, I was so excited. I was seeing the reflections and the projections and all the stuff happening with the natural light. It all kind of melded into this thing that’s bigger than me. I’m just visiting it like I’m visiting an old friend.”
Interestingly, over time, the piece has drawn Sampson even closer to the community that he grew up in. People don’t just visit "Vita in Motu" and keep it to themselves. They take pictures and they post them to social media.
It’s a phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own, says Sampson, and it enriches his life on a regular basis. Sampson is now working on a large dichroic glass display for an elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and "Vita in Motu" is in some respects a prototype for his work going forward. He can only hope that his future installations inspire the same response.
“When the community began interacting with it and posting pictures, that’s something an artist can’t predict,” he says. "I had friends from high school that have come. Art teachers from Ringling emailed me how much they enjoyed the piece. Friends from New York who I haven’t seen since I moved to LA have sent me pictures.
"That was always cool; people would come in and I’d get a picture of them at a certain point of the day. Maybe it was a cloudy day. It could be a sunny day. But I was always getting these texts or posts from people.”