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When an artist is invited to be in the Whitney Biennial, it's a really big deal. The exhibition at the New York museum can launch an artist to international stardom.
RAUL DE NIEVES: I screamed so loud. I was, like, probably crying and was like, oh, my God.
CORNISH: Then Mexican-American artist Raul de Nieves had to figure out what he would make for the show. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has his story.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Raul de Nieves makes everything by hand - costumes made of paper and glue, beaded sculptures. He says growing up in Michoacan, Mexico, lots of people made stuff. He took it for granted.
DE NIEVES: When people are like, oh, so you're an artist, I'm like, oh, isn't everyone an artist?
BLAIR: His mom taught him and his siblings how to crochet. They learned how to sew in school so they could make their own clothes. Today he makes art out of junk - thousands of tiny plastic beads, scraps of fabric. It's tedious, time-consuming work. So he was really nervous when he met with Whitney curators to talk about what he might do for the show.
DE NIEVES: And so we're walking through the museum, and then we get to a point where we're staring through 17-foot tall windows. And then they're like, we thought you could maybe work with this. And I was like, wait; what?
BLAIR: De Nieves had never worked on something that big - as in billboard big. At the time, he says he was working in a studio the size of a closet.
DE NIEVES: I first I was like, oh, I need a machine to help me make this, you know? Like, I was like, oh, this is the Whitney. It needs to be, like, really fancy. And I need to, like, elevate my craft, so I'm going to try using the CNC cutter.
BLAIR: That's a machine that cuts heavy materials like glass. De Nieves ran the idea by Whitney Museum curator Chris Lew.
DE NIEVES: Chris was like, you and CNC cutter?
CHRIS LEW: We don't want artists to go outside of who they are and the work that they make.
BLAIR: In a word - no.
DE NIEVES: And I was like, are you crazy? Like, I'm never going to get that done.
BLAIR: But for four months, De Nieves worked by hand nonstop.
DE NIEVES: Here it is.
BLAIR: At the Whitney, the window and the light fill the room. There's a dragon, figures dancing, green flies and white doves. It looks like Cathedral-worthy stained glass, and yet there's no glass in it. In typical De Nieves fashion, it's made entirely from everyday material.
DE NIEVES: Drawings made out of tape, paper, glue, photo gels, beads.
BLAIR: Chris Lew is thrilled with the result, especially that you can see the colors from outside the building.
LEW: It kind of announces itself before you even arrive.
BLAIR: The artist is even more excited.
DE NIEVES: And that's - when we put up the last panels, I felt like a dog. I was, like, running. I was like (yelling). Like, I was like, oh, my God. Everyone was like, oh, my God, you did it. And I am just so happy that the challenge was there and that I said yes.
BLAIR: Nothing motivates like fear and a deadline. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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