Artist Cara Despain Uses Her Western Roots to Influence Her Work Living in Miami

Artist Cara Despain at the reveal of her installation "Water/Tables" at the Underline.
Artist Cara Despain at the reveal of her installation "Water/Tables" at the Underline. Photo by World Red Eye
Underneath Miami’s Metrorail tracks in Brickell sit two distinctive Ping-Pong tables. The tables look almost like inverted pyramids made of concrete. Here, the typical mesh net that divides the table is made of metal and spells out the word “water” on one and “table” on the other. As you walk by them, you can almost imagine the tables calling out to you to come and play.

The pair of tables is actually an art installation, aptly entitled "Water/Tables," by artist Cara Despain.

The artist was inspired by Ping-Pong as a way to bring the community together when she lived in Berlin more than a decade ago. When the opportunity arose to work with Miami-Dade’s Art in Public Places for a piece along the Underline public park, Despain knew exactly what to pitch.

“I was interested in doing something that invited the community to come together to play [at the Underline] rather than doing a traditional sculpture,” Despain says. “I also just love Ping-Pong, and selfishly I want to play too,” she adds with a smile.

“I make a lot of dark and gloomy artwork, but I totally believe in joy and in play, and I think [Water/Tables] is a radical and critical starting point to conversation.”

Born in Salt Lake City, Despain splits her time between Florida and Utah. She describes her work as having a focus on landscape and territory — particularly when it comes to the West.

“I really play with the dark underbelly of the pretty cinematic splendor of the American Dream and undermine the myth of the promise of the U.S. as an idea,” she says.
click to enlarge "Water/Tables," commissioned for the Underline by Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places. - PHOTO BY WORLD RED EYE
"Water/Tables," commissioned for the Underline by Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places.
Photo by World Red Eye
Despain credits Miami and its ample resources for creatives as a catalyst in her evolution as an artist. Soon after moving here in 2012, Despain was quickly immersed in the art scene. Her outside-the-box ideas that would have been impossible to produce in Utah were getting greenlit and put on display for audiences.

“When I was there [in Utah], I had these crazy ideas of things I was interested in trying out, but I just didn’t have the grant funding or the people around me with the same vision,” she says.

She recalls one of her first Miami installations, done in 2016 with Fringe Projects and titled “Sea Unseen,” wherein she installed marine speakers in the storm drains around Miami Dade College’s downtown campus. Passersby would be drawn in by the sound of conversation coming from underneath their feet and hunch over the drains to hear more.

“We had to open up the city’s storm drains and install these speakers that played this weird radio drama narrative about sea-level rise. When I took the idea to Fringe Projects, I was fully expecting to hear a no, but they said, ‘Let’s try it!’”

Despain’s green eyes are framed with bright purple ringlets that bounce as she laughs. Her kind smile and shy yet engaging demeanor remind you that she was raised far from South Florida.

The notion of the American cowboy and the Western frontier is foreign enough among Miami’s diaspora that the Salt Lake City native can use it to her advantage. And she does so brilliantly. In 2014, one of Despain’s first solo shows as a Miami artist featured 99 claims, a piece consisting of 99 concrete busts of the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, in a large heap.
click to enlarge Installation view of 99 claims. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CARA DESPAIN
Installation view of 99 claims.
Photo courtesy of Cara Despain
“I would have never made that piece in Utah at the time,” Despain admits, “but for this audience, it worked perfectly. [Smith] looks like any other white guy. You didn’t have to know the story of the Mormon Church to get the concept fully, but if you did know the story, you got something else out of it.”

Despain adds how cross-communication between regions is an important aspect of her work. Although the main themes in her work are derived from the idyllic symbolism of the American Dream and Western Civilization, she also incorporates the message of climate change and sea-level rise.

Audiences in Utah might not fully understand sea-level issues in their landlocked state, and Miamians are likely as unfamiliar with resource extraction and land ownership issues in the West. But, says Despain, “It’s all connected.”

“It feels very important to me to be a cross-communicator and to make work about different issues and have it all fit together,” she says, fingering the charm that hangs from her silver necklace.

Despain is currently working on expanding her carbon-painting series for an upcoming show at Spinello Projects. The body of work features large canvases covered in pure carbon that Despain collected from a burn site.

The series is a direct response to the current climate crisis, and by using burnt pieces collected from actual fires, the material is directly connected to the work.

The artist has collected from sites such as the Woolsey Fire in Malibu and the Camp Fire in Paradise, both in California. She has plans later this year to visit more fire sites and collect more debris.

“I don’t want to make something that’s a stand-in for the thing that I’m trying to say; I want there to be a direct line. For me, it’s not about making a picture; it’s about the carbon aftermath. And taking burned wood from these sites, like parks and public places, that’s the most direct tactic I can take.”
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.