Little Chapels on the Prairie

Six North Dakota architects design mobile spaces for viewing a local painter’s work.

When painter Marjorie Schlossman mentions “chaplets,” she’s talking about something far different than neighborhood churches. In 2001 she built a permanent art chapel—a personal gallery in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, that aims to provide a secular contemplation space for the public. Inspired just a few years later to take the show on the road, she enlisted six area architects to help build smaller nomadic venues. Finished with Schlossman’s work, the structures will occupy the grounds of the North Dakota State Capitol Building, in Bismarck, from early July to mid-August and will go on tour soon after, making appearances in locations across the country.

Schlossman doesn’t recall exactly how she first came up with the idea of building transportable chaplets for art. “These sorts of things are mysterious,” she says. “I just wanted to try to create inspiring environments.’” But once the idea hit her, she was determined to see it through. Rather than applying for grants, which could have delayed the project, she decided to move forward immediately by bankrolling the chaplets herself with a budget of $25,000 per structure. She turned to six local architects—Richard Moorhead, Michael Burns, Julie Rokke, Joel Davy, Jef Foss, and Phil Stahl—hoping they would join her. Even though the tight budget left little room for design fees, none of the architects hesitated. “I knew it sounded absolutely crazy, but every one of them, pretty much right there on the spot, said yes,” Schlossman says. “I was absolutely thrilled and amazed.”

The architects were intrigued by both Schlossman’s ambitious idea and the experimental nature of the project. “I had never done anything like this,” says Davy, a principal of JLG Architects. “I wasn’t sure it could even be done for the money, but it was such an unusual opportunity we just decided to pursue it.” The chaplets would have to be small and easy to disassemble for travel, but Schlossman otherwise gave the architects total creative freedom—her artwork would come afterward, as a response to the architecture. “It turned out to be a thought-provoking experience,” says Burns, who designed a translucent art-viewing chamber hugged by horizontal wooden slats. “It also brought architects and contractors a lot closer together. In my case, it was a really awesome collaboration with my contractor to find an efficient way of assembling our chaplet so that it could also be easily taken apart.”

Most unexpected of all was the chaplet designed by Richard Moorhead, who enlisted his sons—Robert and Granger, of New York’s Moorhead & Moorhead—as collaborators. With a looped structure of carbon-coated fiberglass rods that sway in the wind like prairie grasses, the chaplet provided no walls on which Schlossman could place her art, forcing her to paint the floor instead. “We said, ‘Marjorie, we love your art, you really do beautiful things, but we’re going to have people step on it, walk on it, sit on it, and scrape their feet on it,’” Richard Moor­head says. “And she was absolutely wonderful.”

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