The Woman Who Blew Up the Art Scene

In the 1970s, Ann Slavit upended expectations with her inflatable public works

When Into the Woods, the fable-filled musical, was headed for its second Broadway revival last year, the producers thought it would be great to also revive its showstopper of an advertisement: the 42-foot leg of the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. When the show debuted in 1987, the inflated sculpture dangled down the outside of the Martin Beck Theatre. It was trotted out again during the 2002 revival.

But the leg seemed to have skipped town. As The New York Times reported, although people involved in the previous productions said it had been stored away, no one could say exactly where.

The inflated leg of the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk hangs off a building.

“The Giant’s Leg,” used to promote Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” included a second hobnail boot teetering on the top of the theater. “It symbolizes waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said artist Ann Slavit, “fitting Sondheim’s darker sensibility.” Photo: Ann Slavit

Ann Slavit, J70 (BFA), AG85 (MFA), the New York artist who created it, had a pretty good idea. She knew that when the show closed in 2002, the crew had made the mistake of deflating the sculpture before trying to take it down, making it unmanageable in the wind. They ended up cutting it into pieces. Recently, Slavit said she suspected the story of the giant still being somewhere in a warehouse was a fairy tale.  

She said it without rancor. Back in 1986, when she completed “The Red Shoes”—a pair of 30-foot-long inflated ballet slippers that draped the side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music—she said the ephemerality of the sculpture was part of its appeal.

Like a dance itself, “the image stays with you,” she said in a 1987 documentary about the artwork. “There’s no need for it to remain and be permanent.” Not an easy thing to say about a project that took her three years to complete.

Slavit was a pioneer of inflatable pop art in the ’70s and ’80s, creating public works that were not easily forgotten. Long before blow-up Santas and snowmen became ubiquitous holiday decorations on suburban lawns, Slavit was figuring out how to sculpt with air, welding together skins of vinyl several stories tall and blowing them full with industrial fans.

A sketch of a giant's leg hanging off a building

Slavit’s sketch for “The Giant’s Leg.” Photo: Ann Slavit

Before the inflatables, though, came the legs. As a child in Binghamton, New York, she thought it strange that all the women in her life had to wear dresses and high heels every day. “I thought the adult world and its rules were ludicrous,” she said.

By the time Slavit came to Boston to study at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now SMFA at Tufts), the rules felt even more absurd: She could wear jeans and work boots to her art classes but had to change into a skirt and stockings for dinner at the off-campus residence hall where she lived. When she graduated in 1970 with her BFA, she was ready to take aim at how women were depicted in the media, particularly how the ideal woman was often nothing more than a great pair of legs.

She drew sketches of fantastical sculptures with oversized legs as a focal point, never expecting she would be able to build one. “I didn’t think I had what it would take,” she said. “The whole art world was so macho.”

But when the curator of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, praised one of her sketches and asked, “Can you make it?” she found herself saying, “Yes.”

The question was, how? She turned to her influences. She was entranced by the majesty of the fabric-wrapped trees and buildings produced by the artist Christo. She was taken by the airy, swirling mobiles of Alexander Calder. And, thanks to an introduction by then-Dean Bruce McDonald, she had studied under Otto Piene, known for using 2,000-foot helium-filled tubes to form a rainbow sculpture in the sky at the close of the 1972 Olympics.

So air and fabric became her media. It was part inspiration and part practicality: air and fabric were cheap.

“I didn’t have much money,” she said, “but I could afford a fan.”

A sculpture of a golden tightrope walker in a rotunda.

In 1988, Slavit's golden “Tightrope Walker” made of fabric and air balanced in the rotunda at Boston’s Quincy Market. Photo: Ann Slavit

“Lady, the soft sculpture of a leggy woman walking a dog Slavit did for the Smith Museum in 1977, was followed by two sculptures inspired by Della Street, the secretary in the Perry Mason TV show whose legs were a magnet for the camera. In the first version, 50-foot vinyl gams with their pointy heels hung over the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, kicking gently in the wind. In the second, designed for the first ever national women’s sculpture conference in Cincinnati, gigantic nylon legs perpetually waited by a gallery doorway, much as women artists were waiting for representation.  

Then came “The Red Shoes,” Slavit’s tribute to the 1948 film. She started with a three-foot clay sculpture and patterned an inflatable prototype from that. When the air made unexpected bulges, she tweaked and tucked the shape with binder clips and duct tape.

As she described in the documentary, “Working with an air-filled sculpture is somewhat like a wrestling match. … It’s almost like this thing is alive and we have to work together. It’s not entirely in my control.”

For the final sculpture, she chose strong material to withstand the wind and borrowed time in a shoe factory to use its vinyl welding equipment, fusing the material together inch by inch.

Even before the shoes went up, the Brooklyn Academy of Music administrators were concerned that the art would be vandalized. “They felt terrified that the shoes wouldn’t survive the first night,” Slavit said.

But Slavit knew her art wasn’t as fragile as people thought. And she had come to know the local youth from all the time she spent on the sidewalk with her sketchbook. “The minute you start drawing, kids will come over to you.” She engaged the teens, even hiring one as an assistant, and soon word spread. “They became very protective,” Slavit said, of both her and the project.

A portrait of Ann Slavit in a car.

Ann Slavit. Photo: Courtesy of Slavit

She worked with architects, air structure engineers, riggers—even the fire department helped her out when a ribbon kept breaking away from its shoe. (They needed to test their equipment anyway, they said.) But for the most part, she was the one creating the process, through trial and error.

“I had to figure it out,” she said. “And I have been living like that ever since.” 

Her fearlessness in the face of technical challenges has helped her while raising her daughter, Jenny, who was born with a rare congenital condition that requires her to use a wheelchair. Slavit built a rigging system in their apartment so that Jenny could walk with assistance. She also designed a kitchen with a low, horseshoe-shaped counter and spinnable storage shelves, making it easier for a person in a wheelchair to reach everything they need. This, she said, is an unsung practical side of an art school education. “You have to meet the world with ideas and imagination,” she said.

A drawing of a giant parade balloon, shaped like a panda, with a little girl.

Slavit’s character Emily Bones, frustrated by the limitations of being a child, is eager to see more of the world. She seizes the moment when the wind frees a parade balloon from its handlers. Photo: Ann Slavit

Much of her time in recent years has been spent working on public art projects with people with disabilities and advocating for them to have greater control over the services they receive.

She has also been drawing illustrations of a character she created named Emily Bones. She’s a little girl who develops a friendship, perhaps not surprisingly, with a giant parade balloon. “Together,” Slavit said, “they are able to see the world from a higher vantage point.”

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