Art in the Atrium: Exhibition Now Open To Public at Courthouse

A soaring installation of “birds in flight” and a collection of watercolor paintings now grace the spacious atrium of the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Wheeling.

The first Art in the Atrium exhibit of the new year features the work of artists Henry and Erica Loustau of West Grove, Pa., and L.W. “Bill” Rettig Jr. of Wheeling. The show opened with a reception Tuesday, Jan. 4.

The Loustaus’ three-dimensional installation and Rettig’s watercolors will remain on display for at least a month, said U.S. District Court Judge Frederick P. Stamp.

The exhibit is open for public viewing, free of charge, during normal business hours at the federal building. Visitors must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, to gain admittance to the building.

Henry Loustau, a Wheeling native, and his wife, Erica, spent several days installing their bright blue and yellow birds in the federal building. She said they enjoyed meeting and getting to know all of the people who work in the federal courthouse.

The couple makes the life-size birds from a plastic material that resembles corrugated cardboard, Henry Loustau said. “It’s pretty tedious – doing the individual birds,” he acknowledged.

To install the work of art, Henry Loustau explained that they begin work on the floor where the birds are attached to nearly invisible, thin strands of wire. The flock of birds is then lifted upward, with the wires serving as pulleys, he said.

The birds are arranged in such a way that the whole flock appears to be in flight through the airy, multi-level atrium. Visitors who climb the stairs to the top of the building see the birds from a different perspective at each level.

The Loustaus, who have collaborated on a number of creative projects, wrote in their artists’ statement, “We have long been fascinated by the movement and organization of flocks of birds. In the fall and early winter, they sweep over our home, combing the sky in long graceful ribbons. At other times, they arrive in tight, three-dimensional volumes which morph and turn and swoop.

“The movement of these birds reminds us that humans are fascinated by things that are elusive. We all long to capture that which is intangible and desire a sense of freedom that the birds exercise with such ease.”

The artists observed, “These birds in flight are like ant colonies or swarms of bees.”

“Not only do they seem to have a distinct form, but also a sense of organization and purpose. These animals aren’t following the orders of a single leader. They are self-organized. The swarm’s organization comes from the individual exchanges between creatures.

“This phenomenon happens for groups of birds or bees, and also within contemporary human culture,” they commented.

“In our ever-present Internet communities, there are no dictators. We build groups through individual exchanges with other people. We swarm around news flashes or current trends, and then respond with blogs, tweets and comments. To a certain extent, our culture is taking shape through these exchanges between individuals – organizing itself – finding purpose.”

The Loustaus explained, “Our site-specific installations behave like swarms. Suspended mixed media elements form swirling volumes which float through a space. The effect is created by an accumulation of repeated shapes on geometrically arranged lines (monofilament). Like real swarms they are ephemeral. Because they are constructed from impermanent materials and installed for a restricted time, their life span is limited. The obsessive and excessive construction suggests an attempt to achieve a sublime level of illusion.”

Meanwhile, Rettig’s nature-themed watercolor paintings complement the Loustaus’ installation. His work has been described as “beautiful, graceful, boldly yet hauntingly hued.”

For the Art in the Atrium show, Rettig has chosen a selection of outdoor scenes and evocative depictions of everyday life. Titles of his paintings in the exhibit include “Taking Flight,” “Colors Above the Stream, “Horses in the Mist,” “Gone Fishing,” “Out for a Walk,” “In the Shade,” “Forgotten Wagon,” “Nantucket Window,” “Wash Day,” “Famous Door” and “The Wreath.”

A former fullback and linebacker for Penn State University’s Nittany Lions, Rettig said he is essentially self-taught as an artist, but he has studied watercolor and pencil at Penn State and has worked with other recognized artists. A winner of many regional and national awards, Rettig has had solo exhibits in several cities.

The Wheeling artist’s works are part of many private and commercial collections. Rettig has been commissioned by several large corporations for series of work.

The Loustaus’ recent projects include three sculptures for the 52nd Street Train Station in Philadelphia and a kinetic sculpture for a children’s learning center in Pittsburgh. Larger projects require their collaborative effort, but often reflect the specific interests of one or the other.

Henry Loustau is an associate professor of art at West Chester University where he teaches drawing and painting. Erica Loustau teaches three-dimensional design, drawing, two-dimensional design and art appreciation at West Chester University.

The son of J.P. and Honey Loustau of Wheeling, Henry Loustau studied art at Phillips Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College, Sir John Cass School of Art in London, England, and the University of Illinois. He has had commissions for portraits, magazine covers, kinetic sculptures, set designs for theater and exotic garden sculptures. His work is included in numerous private, corporate and museum collections.

Erica Loustau is a graduate of Hampshire College and received a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been exhibited at the Fleisher Art Memorial, Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Guizhou (China) University Gallery, Sykes Gallery, Millersville University and the McKinney Gallery at West Chester University.