Michele Oka Doner
|Michele Oka Doner|
|Born||1945 (age 68–69)
Miami Beach, Florida
|Training||University of Michigan|
Michele Oka Doner (b. 1945, Miami Beach, Florida) is an American artist and author. "The breadth of her artistic production encompasses sculpture, public art, furniture, jewelry and functional objects…Oka Doner is perhaps best known for her numerous public art commissions, including…Radiant Site, at New York's Herald Square Subway and A Walk on the Beach at the Miami International Airport… Whether large-scale architectural projects, or intimately scaled objects… Oka Doner's work is fueled by a lifelong study and appreciation of the natural world, from which she derives her formal vocabulary…Ultimately, it is her curiosity and wonder that provide the driving force behind her work…Her art is the rich by-product of an inquisitive mind…Through her devotion, Oka Doner has learned to speak the language of the cosmos, acting as a sculptural interpreter of nature's vast lexicon."  "Beyond its strength and beauty, Oka Doner's work defies categorization, blurring boundaries between art, design and architecture." 
Born and raised in Miami Beach, Oka Doner is the granddaughter of painter Samuel Heller. Trained in fresco at the Odessa Drawing School, Heller immigrated to New York and continued his studies at the National Academy of Design. He painted ceilings at the Metropolitan Opera House on 34th Street, c. 1906. Dorothy Heller, his artist daughter, studied with Hans Hoffman, exhibited at the Whitney Museum Annual (1957), the Carnegie International (1959), the Stabile, Pointdexter, Tibor de Nagy and Betty Parsons galleries. The artist's father, Kenneth Oka, was elected judge and mayor of Miami Beach during her youth (1945-1964).  The family lived a public and politically active life. In later years, Oka Doner co-authored, with Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden, an intimate portrayal of Miami Beach from the 1920s to the 1960s using their families as prisms to reflect the times. Reviewed as classic of social history, with material that was part of the public record of its time, it was used as a textbook in Human Geography at George Washington University in 2008.
As a child in Miami Beach, Oka Doner absorbed the natural world around her. "Miami Beach is primal in my work. It was a place that fascinated and nurtured me, with the forces of nature, the dramatic thunderstorms, the extraordinary light. In 1957, age 12, Oka Doner, fully engaged by science and the processes of the natural world, began a year-long independent project studying the International Geophysical Year (IGY). She assembled a book of drawings, writings and collages that become a template for projects realized in later years.
In 1963 Oka Doner left Florida for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her art instructor Milton Cohen was experimenting with The Space Theater and George Manupelli began the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Their students were engaged in poetry, dance, light, music, all combined into a unitary vision, a motif that shaped Oka Doner's student years and is characteristic of her work today. Oka Doner participated in a Manupelli experimental film, a "Map Read" performance with art drawing instructor Al Loving and Judsonite dancer Steve Paxton as well as several "Happenings." Another influence was art historian and Islamic scholar, Oleg Grabar, who illustrated how patterns in architecture are able to dissolve space.
A Death Mask, one of her first works, was selected as the cover of "Generation", the University's avant garde journal, as campus unrest over the Vietnam war escalated. Her Tattooed Porcelain Dolls were adopted by students protesting the U.S.'s use of Napalm, causing disfiguration. "The curious tattooed porcelain pieces of Doner are rather disturbing truncated body parts, as if eaten away by some leper. These bizarre open-stomached puppets, tattooed like the natives of the Amazon, or exhibiting configurations resembling those of certain sea shells, their heads (when they have them) with eyes closed, moth half-open and brain visible, fall into the category of surrealistic objects, but with a surrealism filled with a sap which is naive, barbaric and young." 
Oka Doner received a Bachelor of Science and Design from the University of Michigan (1966), a M.F.A. (1968), was Alumna-in-Residence (1990), received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the School of Art (1994) and was a Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker (2008). Science Benches were commissioned by the University (1990), and her work can be found in the collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art
Upon graduation in 1968, Oka Doner established a studio in downtown Ann Arbor behind the art gallery "Editions, Inc.," where physicist Lloyd Cross and sculptor Jerry Pethick were experimenting with holography. Using a krypton laser, they created the first art holograms. One of Oka Doner's sculptures was appropriated for this experiment. The "Ceramic Doll" opened in the world's first exhibition of holograms at the Cranbrook Academy Art in 1970.
NBC's cultural reporter, Aline Saarinen featured other ceramic dolls on the Today Show on November 4, 1969. These sculptures traveled to the Edinburgh College of Art in conjunction with the Festival in 1973. They were featured on the front page of the Financial Times in a review by art critic Marina Vaizey.
Oka Doner moved to Detroit and exhibited at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in 1971. In 1975, a new body of work, Burial Pieces was laid out on the floor of Gallery 7, then a Cooperative Gallery of black artists, lead by Charles McGhee. It was the first of many installations that shed pedestals and traditional ways of displaying sculpture. A one person show at the Detroit Institute of Arts followed in 1977. Works in Progress, also forsook conventional props. Oka Doner installed on the floor of the North Court thousands of pieces of clay depicting images of writing and seeds in the process of germinating. In 1979, The DIA initiated a small group exhibition, "Image and Object in Contemporary Sculpture," including Michele Oka Doner, Scott Burton, Dennis Oppenheim, and Terry Allen, which traveled to P.S. 1, New York. "To this viewer, the best work in the show is that of Michele Oka Doner, who makes fossilized relics of clap-bones, plants, primitive idols, and large pelvic-shaped structures that metamorphose into grisly chairs. She has elegantly translated these rudimentary forms into real objects of art." 
In 1981, Oka Doner moved to New York City and embarked on a series of public art installations. In 1987 she won a national competition sponsored by the MTA's Arts For Transit Program with Radiant Site  a 165 ft. long wall for the Herald Square subway station in New York City. "Consisting of 11,000 gold luster titles, Oka Doner said she wanted to create something that would soothe the commuter… 'The amount of aggression in the City is already overwhelming. I think of the project as a spiritual sculpture.' "  The same year Celestial Plaza was commissioned at the American Museum of Natural History. The late architect Morris Lapidus said of "Celestial Plaza, "By laying these forms at our feet, she encourages us to stop and search the sparkling expanse for landmarks just as we would search the night sky."  This was the genesis for many installations including the River of Quintessence at the U.S. Courthouse in Laredo, Texas, Flight at the Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., and A Walk on the Beach at the Miami International Airport. Oka Doner understood the floor as an unused canvas. For the Federal Courthouse in Gulfport, Mississippi, Oka Doner designed a security screen, Wave & Gate (2003).
Miami International Airport
Oka Doner's best known artwork is A Walk on the Beach (1995, 1999), and its extension, A Walk on the Beach: Tropical Gardens (1996-2010) at the Miami International Airport. It is composed of over 9000 bronzes embedded in terrazzo with mother-of-pearl. At one and quarter linear miles, it is one of the largest artworks in the world.
"Doner has chosen to express herself in public spaces, on a large scale…A Walk on the Beach…inspired by the marine flora and fauna of Florida is embedded into a ground sewn with inclusions of mother-of-pearl. More than walking on the beach, experiencing the piece is like being suspended in a celestial vault, surrounded by marine constellations and fossil comets, or rather walking along the bottom of an ocean where the milky way has become ship wreck. Doner has invented an astonishing, paradoxical map, where 'below' and 'above' are reversed, one overturned into the other; and yet the sense of wonder overcomes the vertigo of the upheaval of the natural order." 
A Walk on the Beach has been adopted by the community as one the "8 Wonders of Miami." 
Sculpture and Exhibitions
"Throughout her career, Oka Doner has retained a fascination with the human form. Oka Doner's recent figurative work represents a culmination of her synthetic vision, integrating analogies among plant, animal and human life." 
"Oka Doner has created a new sacred art…rooted in the sense of the sacredness in nature…Her pantheon of gods and goddesses…bespeaks her pantheism: her conviction…in the 'unity of all things.' Her figures are deeply rooted in nature, and nature takes root in her figures…Oka Doner's coral figures are implicitly ocean growths and as ambiguously animal, vegetable, and mineral as coral itself, and as such consummately original, both as art and as an expression of life's bizarre complexity." 
In 2009-2010, Oka Doner installed SoulCatchers, approximately 400 shamanistic sculptures in the kiln room at the Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactury, Munich, Germany. "The world itself has a soul, found in the human capacity of imagination. It manifests itself in dreams and fantasy, poetry and art." 
Additional SoulCatchers were exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery, New York (2008) and Frederic Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan (2009)
For the past decade, Oka Doner has been represented by Marlborough Gallery New York.
Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan; Germans Van Eck, Diane Brown, Art & Industrie, Willoughby Sharp and Marlborough Gallery in New York]; Studio Stefania Miscetti in Rome; and Gloria Luria Gallery in Miami, Florida.
Recent solo exhibitions include Neuration of the Genus at Dieu Donne Gallery, New York, NY, where she was interviewed by artist, Adam Fuss and "Exhaling Gnosis" at Miami Biennale, December, 2011 through April, 2012. Her first video, A Walk on the Beach premiered at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 in the public screenings "Art Video" program in SoundScape Park on the 7000 square foot outdoor projection wall of the New World Center.
Her work is in collections worldwide, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Cooper-Hewitt, New York; La Musée Des Artes Décoratifs, The Louvre, Paris; The Wolfsoniana, Genoa; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Virginia Museum; The St. Louis Museum; The Dallas Museum of Art; The University of Michigan Museum of Art; The Yale Art Gallery; Princeton University Art Museum; and the Miami Art Museum.
Oka Doner has received the Award of Excellence from The United National Society of Writers of Artists, the Pratt Legends Award, the Certificate of Excellence from the AIA: Art in Architecture, and the Lydia Winston Malbin Prize at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
- Ramljak, Suzanne. Michele Oka Doner: Natural Seduction. Manchester: Vermont, 2003. Book jacket, 17,
- Bloemink, Barbara, "Nature's Scribe: The Art of Michele Oka Doner," press release issued by Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Florida, 1998
- Archives of American Art. "Dorothy Heller Papers."
- Oka Doner, Michele and Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. Berlin: Feierabend Verlag 1994, 2005. Oka Doner, Michele and Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. New York : Collins Design, 2009.
- Muschamp, Herbert. "Eden Rocks," The New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 8, 2005. 62-66.
- Muschamp, Herbert. Hearts of the City: The Selected Writings of Herbert Muschamp, New York: Knopf, 2009. 786-788.
- Gollin, Andrea. "People Who Make the Place. Michele Oka Doner." Interview. ePropaganda, Wolfsonian-FIU Museum e-publication, June, 2011:2. http://www.enflyer.com/app/file_root/3116/EnFlyers/103274.html#2
- Wolfson, Mitchell. "The Spinal Chord." Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. Berlin: Feierabend, 2005: 12-13.
- Oka Doner, Michele. "Art Folio: I. Lithographs, etchings, ceramics by Michele Oka Doner," Generation, Ann Arbor: Michigan: 1968. 34-38, & cover.
- Stevens, R. '3rd Biennale Des Artistes Du Michigan,' La Revue Modern des Arts et de la Vie. Paris. June,1969:28.
- Saarinen, Aline. "Smithsonian Art…Report on Objects USA…part of an exhibition that will be travelling. Currently at the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian." NBC Today Show, November 4, 1969. [NBC Universal Archives]
- Vaizey, Marina, "Objects, Things…" The Financial Times, London, England, August 30, 1973: 1.
- Breitmeyer, Eleanor. "Sculptress carved her niche in life." The Detroit News, Sept. 1971
- Miro, Marsha. "Artists Whose Work Doesn't Hang On Walls." Detroit Free Press, Sunday Magazine, June 11, 1976:16-17 and cover.
- Miro, Marsha. "Bones and Squishes at the Detroit Institute of Arts." Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1978.
- Glueck, Grace, The New York Times, January 11, 1980: C17.
- "Commuter Comfort," Goings On About Town, The New Yorker, June 10, 1991: 16.
- Weber, Bruce. "Heaven on Earth." The New York Times, June 19, 1988: 74.
- Lapidus, Morris. Essay, Michele Oka Doner et al. Michele Oka Doner: Natural Seduction. Manchester, New Hampshire: Hudson Hills Press. 2004: 23.
- Panicelli, Ida. "Michele Oka Doner: Scultrice, Maga, Filosofa, Donna d'affari." Re Nudo, December,1996: 34-71, 91.
- Austin, Tom. "8 Wonders of Miami." Ocean Drive, Jan., 2001: 254
- Tanguy, Sarah. "Michele Oka Doner: Claiming the Source." Sculpture. July/Aug. 2004: 35-38.
- Kuspit, Donald. Introduction. Human Nature: The Figures of Michele Oka Doner, Milan/New York: Charta. 2008. 7-12.
- Castro, Jan Garden. "Human Nature. A Conversation with Michele Oka Doner." Sculpture. Vol.29/7. Sept., 2009: cover, 24-29.
- Oka Doner, Michele. SoulCatchers. 2009. Joel Chen Loft, Los Angeles, December, 2009. (Catalog)