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The Art of Growing Up: Word Collector Laura Pellegrinelli Turns Opinions on Boise Growth Into Artwork


  • Courtesy Surel's Place
Laura Pellegrinelli started collecting words in Italy. For three years, the Swiss artist lived there in a tiny rural village of just eight full-time residents, spending more time talking to tourists she met through her work than the people who lived beside her. In an effort to connect with her neighbors, Pellegrinelli started a project that was both universal and uniquely Italian. She asked everyone she met a simple question: What is the most beautiful word?

In the end, she collected 139 words stamped on scraps of paper, and used them to construct a dress. It was installation art at its most intriguing, the concept of beauty—created in collaboration so that the whole town would feel ownership of it—sculpted in the image of something traditionally thought of as beautiful. Pellegrinelli has considered herself a word collector ever since. With every project, her mission is threefold.

“I work with the meaning, the semantic, [and] with the aesthetic product, which has to have meaning—it’s a shape, but inside there is the meaning of the flow, the migration, the movement,” she said in thickly accented English. “The third thing important to me is the creative process. I try to inspire other people to work in this way, to live in this way.”

  • Lex Nelson
In Boise, where she’s the first international artist-in-residence at Surel’s Place, the word Pelligrinelli chose to investigate was “growth.” Since starting her residency in mid-May, she has made stops all over town, setting up a table and asking passersby to take a moment to stamp their feelings about growth onto paper tags. She gathered dozens of words at the Idaho Botanical Gardens, her most successful stop. She added more at two Surel’s Place workshops, the coffee shop Push & Pour, Garden City’s First Friday, Camel’s Back Park, a bar in downtown Boise and several art events. As of June 12, she had stockpiled more than 250 words and was still collecting.

“Growth” is certainly a buzzword in Boise right now. Surel’s Place Programming Director Jodi Eichelberger said that serendipitously, Pelligrinelli chose it before she arrived, without knowing about the local debate over how to ensure so-called “smart growth.”
“I had known from her work samples that she’d been working with beauty, but I didn’t know what word she was going to use here. When she proposed growth I was like, ‘Well, perfect!’,” said Eichelberger. He immediately started sending her articles about Boise’s explosive growth and the local debate regarding expansion.

Pelligrinelli recalled, “I said [to Jodi], ‘I dream of working with growth because it’s really huge, and it’s alive.’”

With an influx of new movers, housing prices rising and rent becoming rapidly unaffordable, the very idea of growth has stirred up plenty of ire in the City of Trees. Meandering paths of words like “unaffordable,” “resistance,” “stifling,” “lost,” and “removed” lined up across Pelligrinelli’s Surel’s Place floor bore out that unrest. Other block-lettered tags painted a more cheerful picture: Terms like “diverse,” “festival,” “embrace,” “include,” “learn” and “acceptance” were among them.

Pelligrinelli seemed happy to see both the best and the worst of opinions represented. The dichotomy made her planned interactive performance art feel even more relevant to the community.

  • Lex Nelson
“It’s not about creating some form of aesthetic piece, though in my case I do. It’s to create bonds,” she said of her work. “The aesthetic product is a relationship.”

On Friday, June 14, Pelligrinelli will unveil her work for the public. She’ll also become part of it, stepping between the meandering paths of words to embody the concept of growth with physical movement. When she demonstrated the dance that she has planned, it was as fluid and graceful as a seedling unfolding its first leaves. She said that as part of the performance, she’ll pick up the words from the floor, display them for all to see, and then hand them over to members of the audience. By the end of the night, the floorboards will be bare and peoples’ pockets full. She also collected words about personal growth during her stay, and plans to hang those from the studio’s backyard gazebo and plant them, flower-like, in the garden on wire stems.

“It’s not important that the piece be here forever. It’s ephemeral, so it’s alive in a way,” she said.

In Boise, Pelligrinelli is just as impermanent as her art. When she leaves Surel’s Place she’ll continue to feed her yen for travel by hopping a plane to Paris to collect words in a friend’s cafe. From there, who knows? Perhaps she’ll make good on her dream project and buy a camper to drive across Europe, filling it with words at every stop.