“Do you want to meet the baby goats?” Alison asks, over coffee. She sits at the large work table in the center of a kitchen and living room built from reclaimed crates. A young woman stops to chat for a moment: she’s visiting from Canada as part of Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming (WOOF) and has just finished mucking out the compost. Alison gives her another project, seemingly doing five things at once, but somehow also extraordinarily focused on the conversation at hand.
Alison Heinenmeier joined Vault’s team in 2017, when she moved to this small farm outside Schulenberg. Originally from Gainesville, Florida, she moved to New York to study performance and sculpture at SVA, picking up art handling and shipping jobs while starting her career as an artist. In New York, she worked on a truck for the art handling company Artex, enjoying the movement and unpredictability of any given day, always working with different institutions and individuals to manage the complex movement of many kinds of objects.
Alison designs Vault’s specialty blue and white custom crates, designed to protect any kind of object from movement, abrasion, weather, and mishaps through local, national, or international travel. “As a sculptor, I was always interested in building objects,” she says. “These crates are like sculptures in themselves… it’s creating a beautiful object, but also creating a really functional object. It’s a total consideration about how to transport something, what materials to use, how things move.”
Every crate is hand made by Alison, at Vault’s off-site workshop in Austin. They are built from plywood and pine battons, with foamed-out interiors. The esther foam in black or gray complements the signature blue wash she developed with Vault’s design team. “A lot of the knowledge I have about materials comes from working with the team at Yale,” she says. “The guys there are total scientist dorks. We did really intense packing jobs with them, and they just nerd out about materials. They test for off-gassing, vibration.” While museum standards for shipping art come from major institutions and the College Art Association, many of the materials for the work come from another major shipping company, headquartered in Houston: “If you think about it, NASA is actually making crates for people,” she says, laughing.
“When we developed our crate line, one thing I was adamant about was coming up with three kinds of crates,” Alison says. The first is for short term trips. “If a piece is just going one-way, it’s going in and coming out. You don’t need bolts, you don’t need to lacquer it, so we can save our clients money while protecting the work.” A mid-range crate might go to multiple venues, but it doesn’t need the same level of Mission Impossible-style protection, with international screws and bolts. “For international shipping, you have to consider that a crate might be out sitting on a tarmac in the rain in front of a plane, and there’s nothing a registrar can do to protect it,” she says. These international crates are lacquered, gasketed, with interior lining. Many of them have a second, exterior crate for added protection. This week, she’s busy building crates to transport sculptures by Donald Judd. “They’re already in travel frames,” she says. Her work, then, is to build a crate that allows the travel frame to be suspended inside, something “built to block out moisture, climate, and vibration.”
The farm, called Habitable Spaces, is buzzing with activity, even on this sticky afternoon, and while Alison pours more coffee, kittens swarm the table, asking for attention. The Fall Harvest festival starts soon, and resident artists are on their way for three-month residency. This hybrid space for organic farming, contemporary art, film, and community building is a work-in-progress, and its organizers have plans to add another tiny home on the property, made entirely of reclaimed crates from Vault.
As Vault continues to grow, Alison is researching more organic materials, continuing conversations with preparators at institutions like the Whitney who are testing the possibility of working with materials made from mushrooms. She recycles used crates, turning them into livable structures at Habitable Spaces. “Vault allows me a fluid life,” she says, thinking about the holistic nature of working at Schulenberg, building the crates in Austin, then un-building them and making them into other structures to be used by visiting artists and farmers. “They’re such an interesting company to work for, because we can be off to pursue our other projects in the art world. With the crates, I’m creating my own style, and it also fits into the larger picture of Habitable Spaces.”
Alison’s crates travel all over the world: In fact, one of Alison’s crates transported work from an Austin collection to the Barbican Art Gallery in London for a major Lee Krasner retrospective exhibition, which opened the last week of May.
All of Alison’s designs are based on years of watching how crating impacts art works. “I’ve not only built crates for years, but I’ve unpacked them,” she says. “When you look at crates, you realize things can happen.” Working for the Guggenheim in Bilbao for a month to unpack Calder sculptures, for example, she saw tiny abrasions caused by the pads used to pin down a portion of a sculpture and hold it in place. Small vibrations on those pads scraped the work while in transit, causing a conservation nightmare.
“Crates are one of a kind. They are all about the work of art. If you’re doing a sculpture that has to be brace-packed, it’s very specific to the piece. We work with brace pack-foam, a smooth, non-abrasive surface that’s not going to affect the piece at all, in any conditions,” she says. In her crates, objects are held from multiple places, each designed to the unique specifications of the object inside. “What you want is the least amount of interaction with the piece when you unpack it. You’re basically creating an art piece to travel the art in.” She smiles. “Considerations like that are the thrill. That’s the creative part.”