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Art Break: Student-run Tour Explores Art on Campus

July 9, 2013

Members of the Student Henry Advisory Group (SHAG) lead informative art tours on campus. [Photos by Ilona Idlis.]

Members of the Student Henry Advisory Group (SHAG) lead informative art tours on campus.[Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

Dozens of art sculptures and installations make the UW campus a place of enviable beauty. But for most passersby, the pieces that decorate their daily commutes exist without context and earn little appreciation. Luckily, the Student Henry Advisory Group (SHAG) and the Burke Student Advisory Board (BSAB)* have set out to fix that. Tasked with strengthening the bond between the two museums, the student population and Seattle’s art community, the volunteer group of undergraduates has launched a series of free, public art tours of the University campus.

Entitled “Art Break,” SHAG’s 30 minute walkabouts are designed to fit into hectic course schedules and in-between awkwardly timed classes. Two versions of the tour cover North and South campus, with three art pit-stops on each route. I was fortunate enough to catch the North bound excursion during spring quarter and the guides’ tales of jailed trees, civil unrest and Forensic Morphology made the sunny stroll well worth it. Check out my rundown of the tour’s sites below and look to SHAG’s Facebook page for upcoming tour dates!

1. Nine Spaces Nine Trees

"Nine Spaces Nine Trees" was transferred to the UW Campus in 2007. [Photo by Ilona Idlis,]

“Nine Spaces Nine Trees” was transferred to the UW Campus in 2007. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

History: Robert Irwin’s Nine Trees Nine Spaces appeared in front of Odegaard’s West-facing façade in 2005. The instillation houses nine Winter King Hawthorns in a grid of fenced courtyards. Each tree is rooted in a distinct Cor-Ten metal planter and surrounded by walls of Husky-purple mesh. Although the labyrinthine artwork may seem closed off, Irwin always intended for viewers to walk its turfstone walkways and explore the hybrid urban/natural spaces.

Fun Fact: The UW campus was not the installation’s first home. Nine Trees was originally commissioned and built to adorn Seattle’s Public Safety Building in 1983. Back then the trees were red flowering plums, the planters concrete and the metal mesh a non-college-affiliated blue. Unfortunately, the jailed tree vibe of Irwin’s creation didn’t do much to alleviate the atmosphere of the actual jail cells inside the Public Safety Building, so few people mourned its relocation to the UW campus after the facility’s demolition.

Usage: Nine new lunch spots! Each sun-flecked square has shaded, octagonal bench seating and enough mesh fencing to offer a bit of privacy.

The mini court yards inside the Nine Spaces Nine Trees  installation offer shady lunching spots. [Photo by Ilona Idlis,]

The mini court yards inside the Nine Spaces Nine Trees installation offer shady lunching spots. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

2. Broken Obelisk

The Broken Obelisk was created by Barnett Newman in 1967. [Photo by Ilona Idlis,]

The Broken Obelisk was created by Barnett Newman in 1967. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

History: The Broken Obelisk has been a campus mainstay since 1971. Designed by abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, the three ton, weathering steel sculpture is precariously poised between Kane Hall and Suzzallo Library. In fact, in the 1980s the fantastically thin meeting point between the downward facing obelisk and the upright pyramid beneath it had to be thickened and reinforced before a structural flaw toppled the piece for good. The intentional meaning of the sculpture is just as puzzling as its physical balancing act. In antiquity, the obelisk’s four-sided, tapered form was erected in Egyptian, Assyrian and Roman cultures to symbolize life, triumph and reaching for the heavens. By literally turning the iconography on its head, Newman invited all sorts of more macabre interpretations to his work.

Fun Fact: UW’s Broken Obelisk isn’t one of a kind. Over the years, Newman cast five identical Broken Obelisk sculptures, to be permanently displayed in different parts of America and temporarily showcased in Berlin. These twins ran into their fair share of political controversy, however. One was acquired by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. only to be pooh-poohed as a subversive reference to a broken Washington Monument that would celebrate civil unrest. So in 1969 the piece was sent off to Houston, to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King in front of City Hall. Unfortunately, city officials twice rejected the proposal for a public memorial to King. Instead, the sculpture was only able to find a permanent home on the private grounds of the Rothko Chapel.

Usage: The hard-to-miss sculpture is a useful meeting point in the often crowded vastness of Red Square.

3. Department of Forensic Morphology Annex

The " Department of Forensic Morphology Annex" was installed in front of the UW Law School in 2002. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

The ” Department of Forensic Morphology Annex” was installed in front of the UW Law School in 2002. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

History: The whimsically titled Department of Forensic Morphology Annex (DFMA) is one of the newest and most visually complex art additions to the UW campus. Nestled in a corner of Parrington Lawn by the UW School of Law, the Annex is a voluptuous amalgam of shiny steel, stitched together like fabric. Cris Burch, the Seattle-based artist who created it in 2004, incorporated references to other iconic campus structures, such as the historic cupola of the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory and the F.K. Kirsten Wind Tunnel, in the Annex’s curves. Besides evoking images of snail shells, apples and igloos with its smooth exterior, the DFMA also offers a glimpse into its internal scaffolding through mock entrances on two sides of the structure. Make sure to peek inside for a dazzling display of refracted sunlight.

One end of the "Forensic Morphology" installation curves into a stainless steel vortex. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

One end of the “Forensic Morphology” installation curves into a stainless steel vortex. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

Fun Fact: Burch imagined a fantasy area of study—Forensic Morphology—to accompany the Annex’s physical embodiment.  In a column for Vroom Journal, he explained his process: “I built this sculpture to house the future department of a field that does not yet exist. Morphology is the study of form and structure of animals and plants, without regard for function. It also refers to the branch of linguistics that deals with the internal structure and forms of words. Linking these studies to forensic science—well, just imagine the possibilities.”

Usage: A shady spot to ponder the convergence of different academic disciplines, the meaning of life, what you’ll make for dinner and so forth.

Peeking inside the "Forensic Morphology" installations reveals the dynamic light rays passing through the stitched metal. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

Peeking inside the “Forensic Morphology” installation reveals the dynamic light play achieved by the stitched metal. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

*Article has been corrected to include the Burke Museum Student Advisory Board.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2013 10:04 pm

    Love the article, but please remember–ArtBreak was born as a collaboration between both members of SHAG and the Burke Student Advisory Board (BSAB). We are so excited to work together next year to initiate more tours! Thanks for helping spread the word.

    • ilonchik permalink*
      July 11, 2013 10:07 am

      Thanks so much for pointing that out Tara! I’ve corrected the omission : )

  2. July 17, 2013 10:23 am

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  3. December 13, 2013 2:07 am

    Hats off to architects

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