The Artist Who Gave Inflatable Pop Art Its Legs

A pioneer of the now vibrant inflatables scene, Ann Slavit is known for her looming and ephemeral installations of shoes and legs.

Large red inflatable shoes hang over side of building
The Red Shoes at BAM Courtesy Ann Slavit

Footwear features prominently in the work of artist Ann Slavit, from spiked high heels to red ballet slippers and even a pair of forlorn boots. Hers are no ordinary shoes, however—they typically measure between 30 to 50 feet tall and dangle atop public buildings.

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A pioneer in inflatable pop art, Slavit’s public installations in the ’70s and ’80s appeared throughout New York and Massachusetts. She drew inspiration from the likes of Alexander Calder and Christo, particularly admiring the latter’s focus on monumental yet temporary artwork. “I wanted to work on a very big scale because I felt like there was no other choice,” she told Observer. “I had to sort of be bold and work big because it just felt like women were invisible.”

One of her most striking pieces consisted of a pair of red pointe shoes hanging from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Commissioned by BAM and installed in 1986, the 250-pound slippers take their name from Michael Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes. “I adored it,” said Slavit of the movie, which follows an aspiring ballerina. “It struck me in a way that nothing ever did before—or in a way, since.” Upon learning of her installation, Powell called her to invite her to a Christmas dinner at his Greenwich Village apartment. “It was one artist upon another artist upon another artist supporting each other and acknowledging their work.” said Slavit.

SEE ALSO: What’s Behind the Mass Appeal of Inflatable Art?

Originally from Binghamton, New York, her career had more traditional beginnings. But as she studied academic art and practiced figurative painting in Boston, she found herself moving towards large-scale public art—partly due to its accessibility. “I worked with cloth, which was inexpensive, and air was cheap, it was free,” she said. “All I needed was a fan.”

Slavit established a name for herself with pieces like Della, a pair of inflatable high-heeled legs hanging over what was then known as Manhattan’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and The Giant’s Leg, a boot commissioned to greet musical-goers attending the Broadway show Into the Woods. The latter was so memorable for Jordan Roth, the director of the musical’s most recent run, that he launched an unsuccessful campaign to track down the original installation.

The boot hanging overtop a theatre.
The Giant’s Leg hanging over the Martin Beck Theatre. Courtesy Ann Slavit

Slavit, whose daughter Jenny was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality, has in recent years dedicated much of her time toward advocacy for people with disabilities. However, she has continued her work with inflatables by creating the illustrated character Emily Bones, a young girl who loves the Thanksgiving parade, inflatables and air structures. “She creates a friendship with the youngest inflatable because she wants a different point of view since she’s always on the ground,” said Slavit of the character.

Observer recently caught up with the artist to discuss her lengthy career and delve into the inspiration behind her public art.

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Both of my parents were, in their own way, very creative. My father ran a children’s store for his relatives and we would often do window installations—I have a great picture of myself in one of the windows with live monkeys. And we used to paint the backdrops together. There was music, food, baking. My mother’s family had a bakery, and it was all just in the mix.

When did you begin creating inflatables? Was that always your medium of choice?

I was working as an artist in residence in various places to make a living and I also did photography and continued to have a real interest in dance. In the late 60s, people were beginning to really not worry about boundaries. Public art was starting to be something doable.

I remember actually calling somebody in the military to find out if they could help me because I knew they were making inflatables. And I called whoever made the Macy’s balloons—it was Goodyear. I was putting it together myself, learning how to create air structures. I thought I would do this maybe once or twice, but I fell in love with it as a medium.

Why did you focus on legs for so many of these works?

It was basically my childhood memories of how women are perceived and shown and stereotyped. It was very much coming from the point of view as a woman artist. My first piece was named after a neighbor. All the women wore spike heels every day, even though some of them didn’t go to work. It was Mrs. Lewis—I remember her towering over me because I was a little kid.

When I got to the piece that was at the Contemporary Crafts Museum, I named it Della Street after Perry Mason’s secretary because they did so many leg shots of his secretary and I thought, as a kid, this is so strange to me that this very bright woman who is his assistant is portrayed as a great pair of legs.

Drawing of ballons at parade with a little girl perched on top one shaped like panda
An illustration of Slavit’s character Emily Bones. Courtesy Ann Slavit

Is it true that sometimes neighborhood kids would look after your public installations?

Yes, that’s very true. I always did a lot of sketching on the street. And almost every piece I’ve ever made, I actually created it in a public space. I’ve had a lot of interaction with kids generally.

This was certainly true with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. People in the neighborhood rarely will walk into the place, even though they can be living within a few feet of it. My hope was, and I think it worked, that I could open up my studio to the kids. Not all the time, but letting them see the process emerge. There was sort of a natural organic connection to the neighborhood.

Do you know what happened to most of your public artwork?

From what I understand there was a fire and I lost both the Red Shoes and Della Street piece. The big pieces are all gone.

But, truly, I wasn’t making them to last. I went to hear a choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, who was in Boston at Harvard, and I had a chance to sit in on a forum that he gave. And he said something about dance and how you start it and then it disappears; it was gone. But how strong a memory you had about it was what I cared about.

The Artist Who Gave Inflatable Pop Art Its Legs