Checking in with Aaron Fein

 What were you doing when we called?
I was actually working on something top secret. It is an architectural competition to design a sukkah. Basically you design a structure and there are all these rules for it. You’re supposed to inhabit the structure for a week, and that experience is meant to bring you closer to the fact that there is very little standing between you and your destruction. The world is a very temporary place, and you’re supposed to realize that and come closer to God because of that.

“Guiding my process,” local sculptor and architect Aaron Fein writes on his website, “is my belief that it’s the slightest manipulations, the simplest contextual shifts, and the most mundane juxtapositions that enable our minds to make the most dramatic perceptual leaps.”

What’s your first artistic memory?
I went to a Jewish school in the suburbs of New York and it was Israel’s 30th anniversary when I was in second grade. My teachers said, “Make a birthday card for Israel and we’ll send them along.” So I went out in the area around our house and I found this big flat stone about 12" x 12", and 3" thick. I did this clay relief of the Western Wall. Everybody brought in a piece of paper folded up, and they had to call my Mom to tell her to break it to me gently that they were not going to send my birthday card to Israel.

What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the flag project. This is something I’ve been working on really slowly for the past nine years. It was inspired in the time right after September 11th by all those bumper stickers that came out, and how they started to fade in color. I grew up three blocks from Ground Zero and my folks are still there. I had a very strong physical connection to the place. My physical response continued after the fact. So, seeing these bumper stickers, I thought it really ironic—in a time where patriotism was really strong and the flag was the symbol of that, and the flag was meant to be an unwavering, unchanging symbol—that it was fading. The thought was, “Well, can it fade to white?” And, “if it does, what does that even mean?”

I’ve done some smaller installations of it along the way. The point is that we grow and I keep installing it in different places over time, but now it needs to be done to commemorate those things, not only for myself at this point. The place where it will be installed in its totality at first is going to be up north at Vassar, where I went to school. I recently got a grant to finish it up, and, in fact, the grant has been in tandem with my wife, Dahlia Lithwick, who’s a legal writer and writes for Slate and Newsweek. Over these years I’ve been working on a project that has to do with unity and people coming together, and she’s really been describing the legal landscape in which the laws have become more harsh, more stripped down and how the flag has been used as a decisive symbol.

Tell us about your day job.
The day job really is this project right now. I’ve been getting sponsorships. I’ve gotten a grant and I have people on my Facebook page who have been sponsoring at $250 a flag, helping to cover the hard costs.

Favorite artist outside your medium?
The graphic novelist Chris Ware.

What’s your favorite building?
The Sagrada Familia Schools built by Antoni Gaudí. It was a school built on the Sagrada Familia Cathedral grounds for the sons of the craftsmen that worked in his studio. The building was incredibly economical given that it achieved structural solidity through very sparse use of materials. It was the undulating forms, derived from his understanding of nature and similar to Jefferson’s serpentine walls, that gave the building its rigidity.

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