Architect and Social Practice Artist Therese Kelly to Lead Tours Illuminating Our Relationship with Water

August 8, 2018 10:11 AM
by Ryan Lutz

We sat down with Out of the Blue artist, Therese Kelly, who told us about her interdisciplinary practice and the project that she’s working on at the Annenberg Community Beach House.

Therese combines her architecture background with her social practice art and investigates the parts of city infrastructure that often go unnoticed. In addition, she is a licensed architect with a large body of artistic practice in the public sphere. For her project, titled “Under the Umbrella,” this summer at the Beach House, Therese will lead participants on a hybrid walking tour and workshop open to ages 5 and up on Fri, Aug 17, Sat, Aug 18Fri, Aug 24, and Sun, Aug 26 

Her walking tours will focus on areas of water significance on the Beach House site, bookended by a fun workshop in natural dyeing with an emphasis on our reliance on this precious resource. Capacity is very limited, and reservations are recommended 

Question: Talk to me about your journey as an artist.

Therese Kelly: I’ve always been an artist, it has just been a matter of finding my place in the art world. Growing up, art classes were always pitted against my science and math classes, so I took courses outside of school. My undergraduate studies at Princeton, though in the architecture department, were primarily art theory studios where I was taught to think and look critically and make every move with purpose. Living in New York City after college, with its myriad cultural experiences, shows, and vibrant civic life was great exposure. But I think it was coming to Los Angeles and trying to make sense of this vast landscape that is both beautiful and sublime that things started to click for me. The writings of Land Artist Robert Smithson were deeply influential to me in this regard, as he saw construction sites as “ruins in reverse” and called Frederick Law Olmsted (the landscape designer of Central Park) the first earth works artist. I think the role of the artist is to look critically at the world and reflect it back on ourselves, showing it to us in new ways. 

Q: How do you see architecture and social practice art intersecting? 

TK: For me, they intersect at every level. People think architecture is about buildings. But architecture is about people. I have been cultivating civic engagement and site-specific interpretation for over 14 years, both in my role as an architect of parks and public spaces, as well as through my vibrant social practice. I like to call what I do “experiential urbanism.” I make projects that help people understand how a city works, and how to get involved in making the city that they want to live in. I think engaging people to look more closely at their everyday environment can help promote social resilience and ownership. I want to use all of my skills regardless of discipline – whether it be design and graphics, cartography and interpretation, storytelling and games, writing and research – and use them to work on problems like equity, the environment and resilience that are larger than any one discipline. 

Q: How did you come to focus on water for this site-specific residency? 

TK: The Annenberg Community Beach House is a perfect site to explore our relationship with water. We come there to play in the pool or the splash pad or the ocean. But there are also so many hidden and overlooked water encounters such as storm drains, hand washing, and showering. Where does this water come from and where does it go? 

For a few years now, I’ve been focusing on awareness and appreciation of water — creating a personal, experiential understanding of sea level rise and often forgotten water infrastructure systems. Previously, I’ve created artistic cartography and engagement projects around shoreline changes in Santa Barbara and Malibu. And I’ve been looking at the consequences of importing water, the LA River, and large-scale infrastructural landscapes since my graduate work at UCLA. As co-founder of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, I’ve also produced hikes of the LA River and created water tasting events. 

Why water? Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to get a handle on climate change. Global phenomena like sea level rise feels inevitable, and with storm intensities that cause massive mudslides like we had last winter, or our multi-year drought, what can one person do? With this project, I’m trying to go beyond scientific data to develop more meaningful, individualized relationships with water on a personal level – and to have fun doing it. I hope a more personal connection can also empower social and environmental resilience. 

Q: What can audiences expect to see or what would you like them to get out of it? 

TK: I hope participants have fun! The natural dye workshops will be a chance to make a tactile connection with water – by using water as an artistic medium that can leave traces and memories, and by physically handling and giving meaning to the plumbing pipes that are usually hidden underground or behind walls. You can explore water’s secrets at the Beach House grounds through a series of tours I’ll be leading, or on your own with a mobile iPhone game with a fun series of quests and discoveries. The free game will be available anytime for the 3 weeks of the project, August 10-31. And in addition to these activities, I’ve designed a temporary installation with prompts and provocations at key water encounters on site, which I hope will spark curiosity and contemplation. Through these experiences, I hope participants come to appreciate water: the essential role it plays in our lives, and the extraordinary means we go through to make it virtually invisible. 

Free Tour & Workshop Schedule (visit to register) 

RSVP to all of Therese's workshops.

Out of the Blue 

The Out of the Blue series invites artists to the Beach House to make projects relating to the sights, sounds and people onsite. In these experiences of art as a social practice, Beach House guests come across planned and chance encounters with artistic creation. Out of the Blue is part of the Beach=Culture series of art and culture activities at the Beach House, presented by Santa Monica Cultural Affairs.

Artist Biography 

Therese Kelly is a licensed architect and social practice artist committed to creating a vibrant public realm. A member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and co-founder of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, she creates innovative engagement tools in her work on landscapes such as Downtown's Grand Park, the Baldwin Hills, and Malibu’s public beaches. Published and exhibited widely, including at Museum of Contemporary Art, the Rotterdam Architecture Biennale, and Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, she holds degrees in architecture from Princeton University and University of California, Los Angeles.

About Beach=Culture at the Annenberg Community Beach House 

The Beach=Culture series of artist residencies, exhibits, talks, concerts and art projects at the Beach House began in 2009 with the opening of the facility. Since then, 25 artists-in-residence, 24 gallery exhibitions, and over 400 individual events have brought a diversity of cultural experiences to this iconic beachside location; the only public Beach Club in America. For a list of current Beach=Culture events, visit, and for general information about the facility, The Beach House is a facility of the City of Santa Monica. 

@Annenbergbeachhouse @SMBeachHouse #ArtSaMo

Authored By

Ryan Lutz
Administrative Intern