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Liz Hickok


Written by James Read
27 Wednesday 27th January 2010


Header image: Palace of Fine Arts, 2006

Liz Hickok is a San Franciscan photographer who creates her own urban scenes. In the studio. Out of jelly. This may seem oddly familiar, since a few months ago Bompas & Parr held a competition to celebrate the same thing (Liz was doing it long before then though). I don't know what it is about the coloured gelatin that makes people want to make buildings, but as long as they do, we love it.
Marin model as seen from the train

So, how many jelly projects have you done?

I have completed about 17 different individual Jell-O projects. People often think that my photographs were taken from one giant Jell-O city. But in fact, I create smaller scenes from different parts of the city. Most of those 17 projects depicted parts of San Francisco, but over the last few years I have also worked on pieces from other parts of the country. Soon I hope to start working on a Jell-O Las Vegas, and maybe someday... Tokyo.

People also often think that the images on my website are simply documentations of sculptures. But actually, the photographs are the artwork. I sell the photographs as high quality, limited edition prints. And often times no one ever sees the sculptures on display. Ever since I was young, photography has been my primary discipline. I love the way looking through the camera transforms a sculpture on a table into an imaginary world.

San Francisco, 2005

How did you make the jelly city? This looks quite massive. You made jelly molds for each building?

Creating each of the scenes for my San Francisco in Jell-O series is quite time consuming and labor intensive. While some of my scenes are made up of only a few buildings, others have been quite large, requiring help from friends and volunteers.

In general I make small-scale models for the unique and important buildings out of such materials as balsa wood or foam core. And then I cast silicone rubber molds from those models. However, for the more generic buildings I can use molds multiple times, or even use things like ice cube trays. I then compose the scenes on plexi, adding backdrops and trees, and then I light them from below.

My constructions often exist only in my studio for me to photograph; however, I occasionally create Jell-O installations, which people can experience directly. While the photographs evoke strange imaginary landscapes, the installations themselves introduce a more physical experience for the viewer involving smell, movement, and the desire to taste. The sculptures eventually decay, leaving the photographs and videos as the only record of their existence.  

Installation View of Marina District sculpture at Exploratorium , April 1, 2006

Did you hear about Bompas & Parr's Architectural Jelly festival last year? I think they had whole architecture firms working on each building, and here you've come up with a whole city. How long did that take?

I did hear about the competition. It sounded great I wish I had been involved. Since I currently make Jell-O versions of buildings that already exist, I would have loved to see what all the talented architects designed for potential constructions. I think it is wonderful that the material was used to inspire and push the boundaries of architecture and engineering. I wish I could have been there in person­… I think I would have made a great judge!

The time it takes to make my sculptures varies. But for a large scene, like for View from Alcatraz (below) it can take several months. And that is with help from assistants.

View From Alcatraz, 2007
Did you learn anything about the properties of jelly and molds while constructing all this? What problems did you come up against?

I started working on this project while I was in graduate school over four years ago. I have learned a lot about the properties of gelatin and mold making in that time. For example, I quickly learned that you can't freeze gelatin or it will flake apart. I've learned the best density of Jell-O that will maximize the height and resilience of the buildings. But I have also come to love the way I cannot always predict what the material will do. The fact that my City Hall started to sweat was completely unexpected, but perfect. It makes my artistic process a lot more interesting.

The City, 2005

Does it not kill you that they're all going to melt?

The sculptures don't usually melt unless they are under hot lights. But they do become mouldy and decayed, or sometimes they simply harden as they grow old. But I always have to throw them away eventually, which is difficult to do after having put so much time into creating them. But I feel that is part of what makes them poetic. I do not use Jell-O simply for the novelty of it… it is because it is alive and changing. The cities I create are fragile and very temporary. This reminds me that our urban environments are not as permanent as we may think.

Creating Marina District sculpture

Liz is currently working on a new video as well as some new photos, and hopes to have these on her website within the next month, so keep checking

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