Catherine Widgery’s epiphany as an artist came just over a decade ago with a sculpture she created for the opening of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum on Cape Cod. Stringing together rusted chains, fishing gear, shells, and other debris, she created a whirlwind of junk in the center of the gallery—and after the exhibit, she threw it all away. “It was a pivotal moment,” she says now, “where I felt that all these things were going to disappear, and I could let them go.” From that moment, Widgery started working in a different way—concentrating not so much on the objects she creates, but on the way they change the experience of the environment around them. It’s a sensibility she extends to the public art installations she’s created since then, which rely on subtle movements of light, wind, and water to transform physical spaces in such a way that the art itself almost disappears.

“I want the viewers who are exposed to my work to come alive to their surroundings,” she says. In a project called Sky Veil, which she completed in 2015 for the county juvenile courthouse in Ogden, Utah, she created reflective dichroic glass panels interspersed with large glass windows facing snow-capped mountains—so viewers see mountains in front of them and behind them at the same time. “I thought of how I could bring the landscape inside,” she says. “By fragmenting it and breaking it up, I give the mind a puzzle, so [viewers] see the outside in a way they didn’t see it before.”

Widgery, 63, has short blond hair and a wiry physique. She comes to the door of her home in Medford, an inner-ring suburb of Boston, smiling in a gray sports top with hot pink spaghetti straps and black spandex rowing pants. One of the few flourishes in her sparsely decorated kitchen is a shelf full of medals and ribbons from rowing races she’s won; discovering the sport at age 55, she won the veterans division in her single in Boston’s Head of the Charles Regatta at 60. Nearly every morning, she is out on the Charles River at 5:30 am, putting in two hours of strenuous rowing before starting work on her art. “It’s a way to get away from the computer and see the world physically, watching the light in the morning as it changes, smelling the smells, and being fully present in the moment.”

Much of her work similarly plays off the changing flows of light, wind, and water in the midst of an urban environment. As a child growing up outside Pittsburgh, she spent hours exploring the woods and creeks behind her house, but was just as intrigued by the “throb of the steel mills” in the nearby city. “That was thrilling to me too,” she says. “I’ve come to realize how this nature-culture divide has been a source of a lot of my creative thinking.”

She showed the eye of an artist from a young age. In grade school, when her classmates were stringing macaroni necklaces, Widgery was piling the pasta into sculptures. After earning a degree in studio art at Yale in 1975, she fabricated steel sculptures 25 feet high out of steel scavenged from scrapyards in upstate New York. “I was fearless about doing large-scale work,” she says. In 1979, she moved to Montreal, which had a nascent public arts program that gave her her first commission, a wall piece at a medical center, for $16,500. “I thought it was incredible someone wanted to pay me that much for my art,” she says. For years, she split her time between studio practice and public installations. “The white-box elite museum world was not entirely satisfying to me,” she says. “I liked the idea of bringing art out into the world, and thinking about students at a school or patients at a hospital exposed every day to the artwork.”

Working with Communities

When starting a new public art commission, Widgery visits a site, but also thinks hard about the people who will be using it. “Is this a psychiatric institution? Is this a school? Is this a building about science?” she asks. “Will people be driving by it or walking by it? By day or by night?” Since, in many cases, the building associated with her project doesn’t exist when she starts work, she makes use of computer tools to visualize the angle of the sun at certain times of day, or looks online at Google Earth or photo-sharing sites like Flickr to see how the site will look at different times of year. (In some cases, those images are even incorporated into her art—as they were in Sky Cycles, a commission from the Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Fremont, California, which uses photos sourced from residents to create a visual tapestry, showing train riders images of their own community.)

When possible, Widgery also likes to meet with members of a community to talk about what they are looking for from one of her art projects. For a commission on a light-rail station in St. Paul, Minnesota’s Asian district, she met in a community gathering with 50 neighborhood residents, most of them Hmong, an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. “Here I am, this white lady from the East Coast, the only Caucasian in the room,” she says. “I could sense a certain hesitancy on their part.” The residents told her they wanted the station to help turn the railway into a “little Mekong,” flowing through their neighborhood like the river that flows through Hmong heartlands in China and Southeast Asia.

The ideas they showed her were conventional architectural images, such as the hip-and-gable roofs typical of Asian design. Widgery took note of their ideas, and then spent the next day walking around the neighborhood talking with residents. Back at her studio, she researched Hmong culture, discovering that during parades, performers marched with strings of silver coins attached to their costumes. She looked at images of the sinuous Mekong River from the air, noting its resemblance to the Mississippi, which flows through Minneapolis–St. Paul—and to the dragon, a sacred symbol in many Asian cultures. She incorporated all of those elements into her eventual artwork, River Dragon, in which stainless steel discs like scales undulate in stylized waves that suggest an Asian dragon. When she came back to the community, she says, the response was overwhelmingly positive. As one man said, “We don’t like this work, we love it.”

While some artists enter into a community to help its members create their own art, Widgery sees her role as an interpreter, transforming their desires in terms of her unique vision. “It’s not really their role to design the art,” she says. “It’s better you tell me how you’d like it to feel. My job is to take that and make it into something that looks good. That’s where my years of experience as an artist come in—hearing what you want and finding a language in which to say it.”

In some instances, she uses empathy to connect with the likely emotions of the people who will experience her art. In the case of the juvenile court in Utah, Widgery could relate to the feelings of people waiting for their court hearings, having been in similar situations with her son, who had a troubled youth. “I came to this with an awareness of just how desperate everyone feels, and how much emotional stress they must feel,” she says. Thus Sky Veil offers the reflected image of the surrounding landscape as a subtle, gentle way to reduce their tension.

Sometimes her responsiveness to the environment has put her at odds with public art administrators. Contemplating a project at the new Oregon State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Junction City, Oregon, she was struck by the changing weather of the Pacific Northwest, and used it as a metaphor for the changing emotional states of residents. Her artwork, Passing Storms, proposed strings of shiny metal discs 15 feet high to simulate rain showers, and a cantilevered canopy made of openwork cloud shapes that cast their shadows on the courtyard below. When she presented the work, however, commissioners worried that it would be too depressing. “I felt strongly that we were mistaken in thinking that patients only wanted to see sunny, happy things,” she says. The committee presented the work to two patients, who embraced it enthusiastically, says Widgery, and the project went forward.

“I think sometimes as an outsider, you are able to respond in a visual, emotional way from a perspective those on the inside don’t have,” she says. “A leitmotif in all of my work is that I don’t underestimate what the public is capable of perceiving or understanding.”

Animating Environments

Widgery prefers projects in which she can actively engage with the community before she decides on a direction for her artwork. This can be difficult when, during a competitive bidding process, artists are kept from speaking with community members—even if that restriction serves the laudable purpose of avoiding conflicts of interest. She’d rather be chosen based on her past work, and then work collaboratively with designers; it’s even better, she says, when she can be brought in well before final designs are set. “I don’t like it when I am given a site and told that inside the red dotted line is where the art goes,” says Widgery, who has been thinking outside the lines since she improvised macaroni sculptures as a kid. “I can come to a whole site with much more inventive ways for art to be integrated than anybody may have thought of,” she says.

A case in point is Leaves of Wind, an installation for 22 light-rail shelters in El Paso, Texas. Desiring to unify the stations and bring nature into a sometimes chaotic urban environment, she suggested to the designer that he use openwork grating for the walls of the shelters, in order to screen out the harsh sunlight but also allow air through, to cool passengers as they wait. On the slats of the grating, she preprinted colorful images of native flowers. Now, when people walk past the shelters, they see the flower images emerge, then disappear; their attention is drawn to the beauty of the plants even as they see the urban landscape through them.

Leaves of Wind is a perfect example of Widgery’s work, connecting natural and urban environments, and engaging the viewer through animation and motion. In a world that presents a constant barrage of visual stimuli, Widgery’s work attracts our attention, but then redirects that attention outward, beyond the work, giving us a better appreciation for the world around us. “We have so much stimulation around us all the time, our awareness is shut down,” says Widgery. “Awakening that consciousness, so people see the world around them, is what a lot of my art is about.”

Michael Blanding is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and author of The Map Thief, a New York Times bestseller. His writing has also appeared in WIRED, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Boston.

From Public Art Review #55, where this article originally appeared as “Transforming Spaces.”