Embodiment in the Public Art of Jody Pinto:
a Dancer and Artist in Conversation from Afar

Christina Maria Castro-Tauser

Christina Maria Castro-Tauser

When passing through the Fingerspan bridge in the Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, “you are bringing the bridge to life and at the same time you become the muscle and the sinew and the cellular structure of Fingerspan.” This is the description rendered by the sculptor and creator of the bridge, Jody Pinto, in the Museum without Walls, an audio recording by the Association for Public Art.1 When I heard Pinto’s description of Fingerspan, an architectural sculpture that acts as a bridge, over a year ago it felt like an invitation to create, or a dare to bring the bridge to life through movement.   This was the start of my conversation with Pinto from afar.  Pinto’s art conveys an integral relationship between site, art and the human body, evident in her site-specific sculptures many of which use images of the human body. My research and embodied exploration into two of her architectural sculptures was a way to help me better understand, from a phenomenological viewpoint, the relationship between public art and site-specific dance and how they can bring new life to older structures and create a place for reinvestigation.

Sources for my exploration include several emails between Pinto and me; a conversation with Gerald Silk, art historian and professor at Temple University who wrote about Pinto’s work in 1984; and an email with Brian Meunier, professor of art, at Swarthmore College who discusses the destruction of Pinto’s Split Tongue Pier, a work formerly located on the Swarthmore campus. Descriptions of several site visits, physical exploration and video recording inside Pinto’s Fingerspan bridge and Land Buoy accompany this essay. 

Embodying Fingerspan

On an early October afternoon, I hiked through the rocky Wissahickon Creek Trail near Livezey Dam in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania towards the finger-shaped covered bridge. I could see the bridge in the distance while hearing the rush of water from the nearby creek. The bridge blended beautifully with its surroundings, as though it had always been there as a part of the natural environment. The hike up was surrounded by woods and is bumpy, requiring balance and careful negotiation with every step. Upon entering the bridge I could see how Fingerspan provides a safe and secure crossing over the gorge, a practical way to proceed on, as well as a stimulating visual experience with layers of texture created by sunlight. The transition from the steps leading to the bridge allows a smooth entrance—not distancing one from nature but bringing one safely to the other side. 

Captivated by Fingerspan, I felt moved to contact Pinto to learn about her artistic process. I wanted to better understand how she creates works that combine, integrate, and relate with their surroundings. Pinto responded via email, leading to a continuation of my exploration and giving me incentive to create a dance, using as a site the Fingerspan bridge. Pinto explained that the bridge is made “completely of Cor-Ten steel:  it ‘weathers,’ forming a protective coating, and to me it was a ‘living’ material. As it weathers it takes on the coloration of tree bark and blends into the landscape.”  The bridge is constantly changing and morphing to become one with its surroundings. Its camouflage adds to the visual impact, because it is seen beautifully from a distance without distracting from the environment.  The bridge‘s perforated steel skin allows the light to penetrate the entire structure. While I was dancing on the bridge the light bled through the steel and created circles on my skin causing an instant relationship with the structure. The feeling and light in the structure changes constantly, making it feel alive and possible to form a relationship between us. The circles of light were constantly moving and, as I moved, covered me with miniature bubbles of light. My movements responded to those changes; I wanted to see how I could create movements that placed the light circles in the inside of my arms to create spirals that moved smoothly from one body part to another.  I explored moving closer to and farther away from the outer “skin” of the bridge to see how the circles of light multiplied and/or became more defined. The bridge enhanced my awareness of the shadows and textures of my surroundings, causing my movement to be completely integrated and devoted to the sensory information I was receiving from the bridge.

Fingerspan’s Cor-Ten steel floor provided a beautiful auditory experience that emphasized the echoes of my presence with the sounds of nature. I could clearly hear the sounds of the creek and the birds in the area blending with the echoes and rattling created from my steps on the bridge. I continued moving while listening very closely to the sounds. Once again, it brought my attention to my surroundings, emphasizing the relationship between nature and my individual experience inside the bridge.     

According to Pinto, “shaped like a bent finger, Fingerspan is a practical and symbolic reach.” Her intentions for the bridge were all site-related:  in Pinto’s words,  “how one listens to the site (materials, physical properties, typography, etc) and how the work will be used, the platform for its use (the physical experience of the passage for pedestrians) hiking along the popular nature trail , the pedestrian passes over the bridge continuing the physical experience of a hike (because, unlike most bridges, this bridge is jointed , and metaphorically becoming the muscle of Fingerspan” are at the heart of the work.2 The transition from being off the bridge to entering the bridge is crafted to choreograph the hiker’s steps since there are no other options.

Pinto emphasized that “the form of Fingerspan involves touch similar to the Michelangelo painting involving the passage of spirit/life through touch. It is the connection of body/land.” My dance in the bridge continued to develop by working with movement dynamics that changed as I got closer and further from the edge of the finger or closer to making the passage from one side of the gorge to the other. The Fingerspan bridge provides a unique experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. I was gaining so much sensory information as I was dancing through the structure. The perforated floor let me see how high above the ground I was and brought my awareness to the passage that I was completing with the help of the sculpture. My dance was about the relationship with Fingerspan and its perceived role to help us further connect with the environment.

The installation of Fingerspan was itself conceived as a live performance. According to Pinto:

We couldn’t figure out how to deliver seven tons of steel to the site without damaging the trees and requiring a great deal of labor and time, I suggested using a large helicopter to fly it in. My engineer turned out to have been a medical airman during the Vietnam War. He offered to use his connections with the army, and the bridge was flown in to the site in stages. The entire operation took only three hours. I knew every TV station and newspaper.3

In effect, Fingerspan is a constant performance involving every pedestrian who enters the site and becomes part of the practical and symbolic ‘dance’ emphasizing the connection between the land and the body.

Fingerspan is one of many public art pieces by Pinto and was the starting point for my investigations of her work.  After visiting Fingerspan, I began gathering information about her earlier works, including Excavation and Construction:  notes for the body/land, The Henri Drawings, Split Tongue Pier, and Land Buoy.  Moving on from Fingerspan, I knew I wanted to explore another of Pinto’s body-related sculptures to better understand her ideas about the relationship between the body and land.

Earlier Works of Jody Pinto

Excavations and Constructions: notes for the body/land is small book of pictures of Pinto’s early works, along with short stories and entries that rather than describe those early sculptures provide a unique view into her creative thinking and artistic processes. The stories offer an inside view into her early explorations and help connect the works of the 1970s to the larger public art sculptures such as Fingerspan that she continues to create today.  Photos and descriptions of Red Bundle Enclosure 1975, for instance, describe

Excavating a 19th Century well on landfill in an empty lot in Philadelphia. As my digging brings into focus the circular form I realize. I am digging my way into myself. It is a process of excavation /entombment that is repeated with every lift of the shovel. I am twelve feet into the earth and I can’t tell where the hot, sweet, damp smell is coming from.4

Pinto’s works are very similar to dance or improvisation in that they must be experienced and take full embodiment to create and appreciate. Like improvisation they neither remain nor can be easily revisited, they exist in a specific location and for a limited duration of time. Red Bundle Enclosure is about the experience of the artistic moment.  Whether viewing the art from above or climbing the ladders inside, it is a full sensory experience.

According to Pinto digging these wells helped her to better understand herself.  The description of her early work left me with the desire to dig a few large holes to better discover what she was feeling.  I related the action of digging to the investigations that are part of the choreographic process, a physical response equivalent to Pinto’s literal and metaphorical Excavations. She further described the creation of Red Bundled Enclosure as a process that she repeated and embodied—very similar to how I see the rehearsal process, a continual sort of digging to find new ways of fully investigating movements and to discover what is hidden within the realm of possibilities with the body. Here once again Pinto connects her art to the body:

At eighteen feet I stop, climb to the surface and repeat a ritual that is thousands of years old. I lift a life-size, blood-stained bundle… a time bomb of contained energy and experiences. I carry the bundle down the ladder and place myself in the enclosure. I leave the site and the ladder remains.5

Pinto’s work from the early stages was all-engrossing, taking full embodiment to create, and was more concerned with experiences gained through creating and viewing than with a  final product. 

Searching to further explore and create dances again within Pinto’s art work, I became aware that she had created Split Tongue Pier for the grounds of Swarthmore College. However, I could not find any current information about the piece on Swarthmore gallery websites. l contacted Professor Brian Meunier, Studio Art Coordinator and author of an NEA grant that on behalf of the school invited several sculptors, including Pinto, to create large outside works. I was hoping to dance on the pier like I did in Fingerspan, but found out that the pier no longer exists.  All the information I could gather about the project was that:

Jody chose to work with a site over the creek facing a large rock that was split down the middle, (hence- Split Tongue pier) a pier built like a tongue across the creek seemingly about to lick the split rock. The sculptures were to remain until the college decided that they needed to be removed because of natural damage. The Split Tongue held out until we had an enormous amount of rain that flooded the creek taking the Tongue with it. It floated down the creek to finally rest against a town dam, where it was disposed of by town crews.6

Throughout this project, I was looking for a structure or permanent work of art as a site within which I could create a dance.  I was conceptualizing Pinto’s work as something that could be revisited. I was hoping to create new work sited within a sculpture that had a more permanent existence.  Instead what I found was that Pinto’s structure was also not permanent, and thus was impossible to revisit. The structure, like a performance, now remains only in pictures, memories and descriptive writings. Her sculpture’s life span was determined by nature, as agreed upon at its creation.  The deterioration of the bridge is itself a part of the art work, making it, like Fingerspan, a living work.


The more I discovered about Pinto’s work, the more I could relate her process to my choreographic process. All of her works had elements of performance in their creation; all had a close relationship to the body and the subconscious. While researching Pinto’s work I was fortunate enough to meet with Professor Gerald Silk, author of Jody Pinto: The Henri Drawings, part of the Investigations, a series that was catalogued in conjunction with an exhibition of her work that was also titled Investigations. Silk, while talking about Pinto’s The Henri Drawings, related Pinto to the feminist land and body artists of the 1970s.7

The Henri Drawings were devoted tributes to Henri La Mothe, the Danish Olympic swimmer who would dive from an extreme height to land in shallow tubs of water. Silk wrote that “Henri, almost invariably depicted in silhouette and made androgynous, is in Pinto’s words her ‘alter ego,’ ‘childhood hero’, ‘flying saint and extraordinary figure’, an ‘adult who acted out fantasies and had a great time doing it with tremendous energy and humor'".8 Once again Pinto’s work was concerned with performance, movement and actions:  the human body as it carries experiences that store information and can be displayed in parts or as a whole to provide meaning. La Mothe’s actions of death-defying acts were important to Pinto. According to Silk, “nearly all her works are products of energetic actions,” reflecting a fascination with processes requiring the whole body.9 Silk described five of The Henri Drawings, all created in 1983 with gouache, grease crayon, and watercolors on paper, all between 60" x 96" to 60" x 108" in size. He goes on to say that “Pinto, like Henri, makes water serve her purpose, simultaneously unleashing and controlling its potential power”.10 I found a connection between Pinto’s early well sculptures and excavations and the pools into which La Mothe dove. According to Silk, Pinto’s art works are  “the products of physically demanding procedures, and their subjects' dealing with extraordinary physical acts. As with her sculptures, physical process functions as metaphor for psychological probes.”11 I relate to Pinto’s work because I see my choreographic process as a physical investigation of the full possibilities of the human body and mind. My choreography, like Pinto’s paintings, often makes the audience shift, turn or look at various focal points and become physically involved even as spectators.  Similarly, Pinto involves spectators, and their physical involvement with the work is an essential part of her creation. It has a strong visual relationship to the sky and water, and this is evident in the structures of hers in which I danced.

Land Buoy

Pinto’s Land Buoy sculpture in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a spiral staircase to nowhere—my experience while on it was a feeling that I could reach up to the sky, and if the staircase had  continued upward I would have been surrounded by clouds. This sculpture is very different from Pinto’s earlier works, although  it does rest upon fundamental elements from her work in the 1970s and 1980s. These elements include the use of space, and the physicality needed to experience the work. The Land Buoy is located on the Washington Avenue Pier, formerly known as Pier 53. This is a pier where many immigrants arrived in the United States by boat, and that is the focal point for Pinto’s creation. Bradley Maule’s Hidden City reports that Pinto’s grandparents arrived in the United States and were processed through immigration at Pier 53. Land Buoy is “a 55-foot-high sculpture, viewing platform, and beacon weaving those [family] histories into a single narrative she knows firsthand.”12 This sculpture provides the viewer with an experience that relates to the Delaware River and to the environment surrounding Pinto’s spiralling staircase.  Through Land Buoy, Pinto celebrates both the location where her grandparents arrived in the United States, and the history of the artists in her family. Pinto’s father and uncles were protégés of Albert Barnes and had successful careers as artists in Philadelphia. Several of their paintings can be found at the Barnes Foundation and Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. 

On an early fall afternoon 2016, I planned once again to dance on one of Pinto’s sculptures. The Washington Park Pier was not easy to find--located behind the steel worker’s union hall, it is not visible from any main roads. The pathway to the pier is peaceful, surrounded by plants and the Delaware River. It was at the end of the pier that I found Land Buoy, and ascended.  When I reached the top of the spiral staircase, the space was limited, with one wider top step from which the viewer has a 360-degree view of the river, bridges, and the city skyline. While dancing on the staircase my steps were smooth and related to the floating clouds and blue sky above. The structure’s smoothness and continuous flow complemented my very slow arm gestures, and torso spirals that provided continuous flow. This site is perfect for performance! Pinto once again created a structure allowing for reflection, and connection to land and water. It wove together her own family history, her time in Philadelphia, and a lifelong contribution to public art. Land Buoy provides a space for reflection, contemplation and connection to history and the land. Working with new technologies and concepts, Pinto topped the staircase a center beacon of blue light powered by a solar panel not far from the structure. As Maule said, "Pinto delivers a modern work in the best sense; simple, handsome, technologically advanced via a natural outgrowth of the past."13

In Fingerspan I identified a pivotal moment in Pinto’s work—closely related both to her earlier explorations in earth and water creations, but also looking forward to her current work exploring and incorporating new technology such as interior lighting triggered by motion detectors. Garrison Root’s volume, Designing the World’s Best Public Art, features Pinto’s most recent works, including plazas, amphitheaters, and bridges. These newer works are massive, capable of carrying and holding hundreds of people, and speak to the trajectory of her life as a public artist. Just as her older works, they ask to be explored physically. The key elements of Pinto’s work continue to be apparent:  the performativity of the structures, the relationship to space and the integration of nature/environment/site.

Pinto’s work makes the relationship between public art and site-specific dance explicit. Each viewing of her work left me wanting to get more physically involved with both structure and site. Her art made me want to enter, relate, climb, rotate, return, reach, flow, bend, spiral and experience each piece. Every viewer becomes a performer within her work, and the sculptures ask us to move. Entering Fingerspan visitors become part of the artistic ideas that Pinto intended for the sculpture, and are provided with a site for exploration and a connection to the environment.  I found a clear reminder of the interrelationship between dance and site; and the importance of collaborations and investigations with other public artists, even from afar.

For Pinto, creating relates to both the body and land. As a choreographer, I am moved by my surroundings, and the opportunity to dig into human capabilities, both physical and mental. My process was enhanced by working in and on Pinto’s sculptures. My creations in Pinto’s sites encouraged me to further my work as a choreographer of site-specific work; the possibilities for future work are especially exciting.

1. Museum without Words: a free audio experience that connects museum visitors with information about the sculpture. http://www.assocoiation.forpublicart.org (2016)  back to text

2. Pinto, 2016. back to text

3. Ibid. back to text

4. Pinto, 1977 back to text

5. Ibid. back to text

6. Meunier, 2016 back to text

7. Silk, 1984. back to text

8. Silk, 1984 p. 2. back to text

9. Ibid. back to text

10. Ibid p.1. back to text

11. Ibid, p.2. back to text

12. Maule, 2014 p. 1. back to text

13. Ibid. back to text

Works Cited

Maule, Bradley. "The Pintos: A Philadelphia Immigration Story,Told Through Art At Washington Avenue Pier." Hidden City Philadelphia. N.p., 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016. 

Meunnie, Brian A. "Jody Pinto's Sculptures." Email message to the author. 27 Oct. 2016. 

Pinto, Jody. Excavations and Constructions Notes for the Body /land. Philadelphia: Marian Locks Gallery, 1977.

Pinto, Jody. "MFA Student at Temple." Email message to the author. 17 Oct. 2016.

Roots, Garrison. Designing the World's Best Public Art. Australia: First Group, 2002.

Silk, Gerald. Investigation. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1984.