Michele Oka Doner: A Myriad of Artistic Expressions

Irene Moore

A chat with a multifaceted artist.

Noted artist and designer Michele Oka Doner’s career has spanned four decades. Her multi-disciplinary oeuvre encompasses sculpture, furniture, jewelry, public art, functional objects, video, as well as costume and set design. She works in clay, bronze, paper, wood, concrete, silver and gold. She has created collections with Steuben in glass, Christofle in silver, and Nymphenburg in porcelain. Whether large-scale architectural projects or intimately scaled objects, Oka Doner says her work is “inspired by the shapes, forms, and textures I experience in the world around me daily.”                           Death Masks, 1967
Her work can be found in collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museé des Arts Deécoratifs at the Louvre, among many others.                           Burning Bush 22, 2003
She is well known for creating numerous public art installations throughout the U.S., including “Radiant Site” at New York’s Herald Square, and “Flight” at Reagan International Airport. Her inspiration for these large-scale projects harkens back to the ancient Greeks. “I love the ancient tradition of the agora, public space,” she says.However, Oka Doner is probably best known for her creation, “A Walk on the Beach,” and installation on the floors of Miami International Airport, one of the largest public artworks in the world. The piece features nine thousand unique bronze sculptures inlaid in over a mile-and-a-quarter long concourse of terrazzo with mother-of-pearl. During the project’s long creation process (1995-1999), she was constantly inspired. “In the beginning, I referenced the beach itself, especially the littoral zone,” she says. “I looked forward each day to finding a new image and creating more images. It wasn’t a project telescoped into a short period. The North terminal just kept expanding like Einstein’s universe!”                           A Walk on the Beach

 Oka Doner also designed the costumes and sets for Miami City Ballet’s season closer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Balanchine’s 1962 full-length ballet. She transported it to the Florida shore, setting it in an underwater realm with jellyfish-evoking tutus and unitards patterned from a coral reef. Lourdes López, Director of MCB, invited her to re-imagine it. “The notion of using Miami as the setting, and placing the ballet metaphorically under water, was exciting for us all,” López says. Oka Doner points out, “It was the first time I designed costumes, but after all, one does get dressed every day so the relationship between the body and presentation, representation, is very active, especially for a visually literate person.” Of her work at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM}, which ran from March 24-Sept. 11, 2016, she says, “The exhibition contains a half century of work, pieces I held on to as touchstones or defining moments. The works represent many media and convergent ways of thinking.” The exhibit’s unusual name, “How I Caught a Swallow in Mid-Air,” “is derived from a question I asked myself after recently viewing cyanotype I made many years ago,” she says.

Oka Doner was also involved with the Louver House condominium on Miami Beach by architect Rene González. For this project, “I created a mini agora, a small sunken living room that will provide the aura of community and the serenity of private, open space,” she says.

An accomplished author, her book, “Into the Mysterium,” is about displays she discovered at Miami’s Marine Invertebrate Museum, specimen jars with almost a million amorphous forms floating in mysterious fluids, a universe of underwater creatures. “The human inheritance is embedded in the mysterium, she says. “When we stare into the specimen jars with probing eyes and inquiring minds, wanting the secrets and marveling at the diversity, the complexity, we move from our smaller selves into a oneness of being.”

After decades, Oka Doner notes that her experience as an artist now is different. “The world has changed since I began working. People are more focused on the visual aspects of their lives including fashion, food, flowers, and home décor,” she says. “All of these formerly secondary considerations have become full-blown careers…Art has benefited as well, taking its place as a primary endeavor. The ripple effect of this elevation has been tremendous for all of the fields mentioned earlier.”

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