Q&A with Artist Michele Oka Doner

There is a common refrain at the Naples Winter Wine Festival: “It’s for the kids.” In the festival’s short 16-year history it has raised a whopping $135 million for underprivileged and at-risk children in Collier County. It has become so fruitful that since 2004, Wine Spectator has named the festival one of most successful charity wine auctions in the country. And while wine obviously takes a front seat when considering the auction block (it is the Naples Winter Wine Festival after all), NWWF’s auction also offers some rather unique, once-in-a-lifetime type of experiences and objects. Michele Oka Doner, Miami Beach artist auctioing a commissioned chandelier at the Naples Winter Wine FestivalFrom one-off Rolls-Royce convertibles crafted solely for the auction, to behind-the-scenes access to Pixar Studios, the auction lots are truly amazing for those with the means. An apt example is an exclusive commissioned work of art from renowned Miami Beach/New York artist, Michele Oka Doner.

   A multifaceted artist who studied architecture and design at the University of Michigan, her career crosses decades and media. Represented by New York’s Marlborough Gallery, her work, from bronze sculpture and large public installations to jewelery and even video, are part of some of the world’s great museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, La Musée Des Artes Décoratifs, and the Louvre to name but a few. While prolific in scope and range, for Oka Doner, art is more a matter of life.

    “I come from a visually literate home and tradition,” she tells me over the phone. “My mother’s family was scribes, and my grandfather, the rebel of the family, trained as a Fresco painter.”

   Probably best known for her work with cast bronze, from sculptures to intricately inlayed floors cast in terrazzo, Oka Doner’s seems to be fueled by the natural world. Even in her abstract coralline sculptures (cast bronze), human form merges with a rendition of a complex, living structure of a coral reef that haunts as much as it draws in the viewer. Her work with bronze, a medium she began working with in the 1970s, will be part of what’s up for grabs at this year’s NWWF.

Strider, Salacia, and Colossus, Michele Oka Doner, 2008 Cast Bronze Collection: University of Michigan Museum of Art

Strider, Salacia, and Colossus, Michele Oka Doner, 2008

Cast Bronze Collection: University of Michigan Museum of Art

Photo: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing, 2008

   Oka Doner will be auctioning her artistic abilities to create a commissioned chandelier for the lucky bidder. The cast bronze chandelier, which starts as a hand-formed wax sculpture, will be built to suit the winning bidder’s space and personality. While a commissioned work like this cost upwards of $100,000, for Oka Doner, donating her time is the least she could do for the children benefiting from the Naples Children and Education Foundation. As a mother and grandmother (as she puts it, “I am engaged as an artist and I am engaged as a matriarch”), she feels, as a civilization, we have an obligation to children, and it starts with the individual.  

    “I believe that one of the great lessons we can take is from Nigeria’s Benin culture,” Oka Doner said. “They felt that the mark of a great civilization is how well it passed on to others their skills, their songs, their culture; and how they refer to a barbarian as someone who didn’t share. I think that is so extraordinary—I always loved that notion of what a barbarian and a civilized person is.”

Michele Oka Doner, Miami Beach artist's cast bronze scuplitre, One Eye

One Eye, 2015

Michele Oka Doner

   This lesson, Oka Doner sees, is one that has become fractured as community becomes more divided. “We have, as a culture, as a civilization, an obligation to the children of our tribe,” she said. “I would love to see our culture come back, our country come back as community, not be so divided…all children are our children.”

   This selflessness, one that is matched by the Naples Children and Education Foundation’s mission, which supports area schools as well as programs fostering mental, physical, and emotional health, is what brought Oka Doner to NWWF. Her hope is that the funds raised from her work will have a lasting affect. “I am very pleased that Naples has this community effort, this initiative to focus on the children of Collier County. I hope what I am donating becomes life-changing for some young child in some way.”

   NI.com spoke with Oka Doner about her artistic sensibilities, nature, the process of cast bronze, and inspiration.


How did art find you?

Oka Doner: I believe I was trained from a very early age to consider how things went together, how things looked, what I would call harmony. I was raised in a home that had a lot of harmony, where things were considered and not just set down. That’s a big factor. I believe that that is what creative life is; not buying something to put on a wall—that’s not what art is. Art is really a way of life, a way of living.


What mediums do you work in?

I work in all mediums: I use bronze; I’ve used clay; made things in glass—architectural glass as well as functional objects; works in silver; works on paper. For me, it’s the idea and the application that are important—I’m not devoted to one material. Materiality is very fluid, its very flexible. And it does take a long time to master materials, but I have been working a long time, and it keeps expanding.

     To be an artist you have to be a chemist, an alchemist, a scientist, and a geologist—you have to really know materials. When you work with these [materials], you learn history, philosophy; there are so many aspects of understanding our lives that open up to you.

A detail of Tropical Garden, part of A Walk on the Beach, Oka Doner's 1.25-mile-long concourse installation at Miami International Airport. Photo: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing, 2008

A detail of Tropical Garden, part of A Walk on the Beach, Oka Doner’s 1.25-mile-long concourse installation at Miami International Airport. Made out of epoxy terrazzo, bronze inlays, and mother of pearl, the installation is one of the largest artworks in the world.

Photo: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing

Do you have a favorite?

I think wax at this point. Strangely I love the warmth of it, and I love the flexibility and fluidity of it—it records what I have in my fingers, the movement, the emotional energy; it’s so receptive. You can also heat it up and pour it. That’s how I did the floor at the Miami Airport. That floor started in wax blocks that were then melted.

   In order to make a bronze, you have to make it in another material first; bronze is hard, so you have to heat it up and pour it into a mold. My first [molds] were made from clay, but as I came more aware of the possibilities of wax I moved into making things with it. It allows for more spontaneity.


Do you have any ideas for the commissioned work you’ll be making for the NWWF auction winner?

[My chandeliers] are site specific, so I will go to the winning bidder’s home, take measurements, and meet with the proud owners. This is supposed to be a firefly chandelier, but if they have interest no in nature at all, but rather geometry, then I would probably think about abstracting some of my ideas, which would not be so difficult at all.

Michele Oka Doner firefly chandelier, commissioned work to be auctioned at the Naples Winter Wine Festival

Artist Michele Oka Doner will be donating an original commissioned chandelier. Made out of cast bronze, some of her past work has taken on an ethereal approach, like the Firefly chandelier pictured above. A prolific artist, Doner has worked in bronze, clay, glass, silver, and paper over her 40-plus-year career.

Firefly chandelier?

It came from the most extraordinary moment many years ago when I was coming back from the Sarasota Opera across the Tamiami Trail. It was dusk and we stopped and walked out on a trail—it is no longer there, I have looked for it several times—into the north part of the park. We walked and walked, and by the time we came to the end of this walkway, this wooden path, dark had descended and literally ten million fireflies were flying around. It was the most unforgettable thing I have ever seen. Somehow that dance of magic really stayed with me, and that’s where I am going to begin.


So nature sways your inspiration?

I always have drawn inspiration from nature, always have. I think more and more we are becoming aware that there such a deep interconnectedness, and we can’t afford to jeopardize the future of this extraordinary, not only beauty, but life itself. I try to transfer that energy into material—give them life. Otherwise I think work is inert. I don’t want that and I don’t want anyone else to have that either.

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