San Francisco artist displays laser-cut sculptures in Mid-Market art walk

Juliana Severe

Nicole Aptekar's art hangs in an empty store front next to the Baldwin Hotel on Oct. 14. The intricate layers made of paper create a three dimensional visual of depth. It is part of Aptekar's project, "New Exploration Paper." Photo by Juliana Severe.

You will be hard-pressed to find any paintbrushes or charcoal pencils in the studio of San Francisco-based artist Nicole Aptekar – though you will find a behemoth, humming laser cutter.

Aptekar has been creating works of art using tools more commonly found in manufacturing plants since 2005. This was when she shifted her focus from media-like graphic design to large scale, big art. Her skills include machining, welding and being able to master most computer-controlled industrial tools she has gotten her hands on.

“I don’t feel like my inability to paint impedes on my ability to make art,” Aptekar said.

She works with a number of well-known local art groups, and also helped found another group by the name of Ardent Heavy Industries.

Now after years of collaborating on installations like a weaponized game of Dance Dance Revolution and a two-ton interactive sculpture that integrated fire, light and music, Aptekar has scaled down the size of her art for a new installation.

Aptekar installed two new works in an abandoned storefront on Sixth Street last Friday as part of 2 Blocks of Art, an art walk that aims to improve the neighborhood that many avoid.

Behind two smudged windows hang Aptekar’s newest sculptures, which are created by layering sheets upon sheets of precisely cut cardboard that spin into repeating geometric shapes.

Aptekar forms the sculptures using 3D modeling software on her computer. She then laser cuts sheets of paper to correspond to the design and assembles them to create the final product.

Aptekar’s art isn’t new to the area, either. Aptekar’s studio is in the neighborhood, and has previously shown her laser-cut paper art at a gallery next door to where her new pieces hang. She is also an adviser to Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which was one of the first art foundations to move into the neighborhood.

“There was this big deal,” said Aptekar of the movement to bring artists into the blighted Mid-Market neighborhood. “Gavin (Newsom) said it would be a start of this amazing arts corridor. It seems like that is slowly happening.”

According to Aptekar, art venues continue to emerge in the area. Partnered with numerous established art institutions, the result is an environment of artists who are able to coordinate and collaborate with one another. Additionally, Aptekar has found herself interacting with people in the neighborhood, especially those on the street.

“I’m pretty recognizable,” Aptekar said pointing to her bright pink head of hair. “At first I did the thing where I was ignoring everyone. I feel like I’m starting to connect. I appreciate that.”

On the day of 2 Blocks of Art, local businesses, galleries and even hotel lobbies turned into art installations.

The event was organized by an urban development foundation called Urban Solutions. Since 2003 Urban Solutions has worked to gradually improve Sixth Street. Their initiatives have brought 30 new businesses to the area and created 130 jobs.

According to a description of the event provided by Program Director Tracy Everwine, 2 Blocks of Art seeks to bring people into the neighborhood who otherwise might not visit.

“My friend who I am here with just told me about it and I thought why not,” said attendee Helen Wong. “I am really glad I did because this is a part of town I never come to and it’s cool that there are a bunch of people around for the same thing.”

Jay Frost, another participating artist, sees the value in bringing art to the area. On the day of 2 Blocks of Art, he set up a wall inside a nightclub that anyone could come in and paint. By the end of the day the wall was covered in trees, suns and numerous other hand-painted designs.

Frost also made the point that using art to bring tourism to the neighborhood is a key to improving Sixth Street and the surrounding mid-Market area.

“Until tourists feel safe on Market Street, it’s not going to happen,” Frost said.

Art walks like 2 Blocks of Art seem to highlight the symbiotic relationship between redevelopment and art and between the art and the artist

“I don’t know if it’s having an effect on the area,” Aptekar said. “But the area is having an effect on me.”

Although some of the installations for 2 Blocks of Art were temporary, numerous galleries along Sixth Street host the work of many of the artists featured in the event.

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