On appreciating public art on campus

May 5, 2018, 7:27 p.m.

“Let’s meet at the string and stick nest thing at 3 pm.” “Be at the brown, metal sculpture after class.” It’s funny that we go about our day to day lives, rushing between classes and meetings for the longest time before noticing the public art sprinkled around the Stanford campus. The art can scream red or slyly poke out between tall redwoods, but either way, it’s not uncommon for students to breeze past it before even noting its existence. What’s even funnier, though, is that once we eventually do become aware of the art, we are rarely curious enough to actively inquire: Why does it stand there? What is its significance?  Who donated it or created it?

Instead of pursuing these important questions, we taint the (more often than not) meaningful and historical artwork with statements like the ones above. First of all, the skillfully placed pipes and cables are actually  known as Mozart 1 — a creative imitation of the solar system and its galaxies, representing the idea that something magnificently complicated can also be unified and interdependent. Secondly, little do we know that “brown,” “metal” and “sculpture” are the unofficially official buzzwords used to describe over half of the art pieces on campus. Of course, there are a handful of people who have followed the Stanford public art map to visit public art landmarks or are genuinely interested in the stories behind such art, but the majority of students fall in the art-wise “unaware” category.

That’s not to say you should feel obligated to ask such questions after passing an art piece on campus. Not knowing the titles of the art around you doesn’t mean you are uncultured or unappreciative of creativity. And no, I personally  do not walk up to every sculpture-looking-object and read the accompanying engraved placard. There are 65 sculptures and fountains under the “Public Art” tab on the Stanford Arts Map webpage; it would take quite the investment of time and effort to become familiar with each piece. However, I do wish to simply bring light to the fact that the public art we often pass without taking a second look has layers — stories and meanings that are waiting to be uncovered. From pieces that are obviously recognized as public art to works that seem to serve more of a functional purpose, here are a few of my favorites that I go by often.

Let’s start with a piece that is the traditional depiction of public art.  Near the heart of campus, between the Law School and Meyer Green, there stands the 40 feet of 400 year-old cedar totaling 4,200 pounds that is “The Stanford Legacy.” Installed in the spring of 2002, this totem pole was carved by Don Yeomans in the traditional Haida style and gifted by Marcia and Fred Rehmus M.B.A. ’61. Made of layers of unique beings and framed by tall trees, the art itself is quite noticeable from a far distance. Deep emerald green, brick green, jet black and shiny copper colors are used sparingly as means of defining only the important features, but the pigmentation is bold. In fact, the large black pupils on each face give the illusion that the eye contact is directed to you and only you. Take a few steps closer, and the four faces are actually joined by several more smaller faces along with a frog and a copper shield. It’s not until you’re standing directly in front of the artwork and looking up that you appreciate its grandeur and feel ridiculously small in comparison.

At first glance, this piece seems a bit out of place because it is surrounded by metal-based, modern-looking sculptures. What is the significance of the faces? Why is there a frog? Is this a worthy location for such a culturally rich piece?  After doing some research, I learned that this totem pole represents the narrative arc of how the University was established; it is an ode to the Stanford family and a memorialization of how Leland Junior’s death inspired his parents to found our school. Each face acts as a character in the story.  Starting from the bottom of the pole, there is a bear figure holding a half-human-being, which symbolizes the unfulfilled. Between the bear’s ears is another small figure reaching up toward the copper shield. This tightly clutched shield represents the power and shared wealth that Leland Stanford Senior, the chief in this depiction, is offering. Next, we have Jane Stanford with the copper tears that the half faces, or children, are gripping on to, which are interpreted as enlightenment and hope for those children. Directly above is a green frog, a spirit treasured for his adaptability, knowledge and power within the Haida community. And to top it all off, there is a raven (the creator-spirit), which supports Leland Junior, represented as a child with angel wings.

Although it was easy to assume that this impressive totem pole was public art and illustrated some story, the content of this story was not obvious. Without aid from its accompanying placard or the Stanford Art map, I would not have been able to understand how the pole related to the Stanford legacy or interpret the intention of the piece. On the other side of the spectrum, but only a mere 100 feet in front of the Legacy, there is the Shumway Fountain. Its purpose is easier to assume, but whether it should be categorized as public art is not as clear-cut. While Stanford is full of stunning fountains, there is some ambiguity as to whether they belong in the same art category as the other traditional sculptures, partly because of their substantial interactive aspect. Nevertheless, the Shumway Fountain too has a deeper background.

Right in front of Green Library, squealing children smothered in sunscreen splash around while parents sip on Coupa iced coffee with their feet dangling in the water. Overly excited canines prance around the rectangular body of water, tracking wet paw prints and shaking off their drenched coats all over the surrounding pavement. Students enviously look on as they trudge toward Green with backpacks full of laptops, chargers and Hydro Flasks — reminiscing about their childhood or daydreaming about having the free time to join in on the fountain hopping. Though not everyone is able to feel the refreshing touch of the water, all passersby are able to hear the bright red pipe spouting hundreds of minuscule streams of water. One stream is not loud enough to be noticed by the usually occupied people nearby, but together the curtain of water’s effect is similar to that of a calming waterfall.

Historically speaking, the fountain was built as part of the East Wing of Green Library in  the 1980s. And though it looks like seasoned abstract art, it happens to be one of the only fountains on campus that was not sculpted by an actual artist. In fact, while the creators may not have coined the word “fountain hopping,” the purpose of the Shumway or the “Red Hoop” fountain was always to bring people together and not necessarily to provide a solely auditory or visual artistic experience. This is why the fountain is placed so centrally on campus (right in front of the main library) and features a shallow set of inviting stairs that descend into the  water. The addition of steps may not seem like anything revolutionary. But it really does encourage students and tourists alike to come together around the falling water, whether or not they are keen on actually getting in. In addition, if the concrete steps aren’t appealing, there is an opening in the amphitheater-style setting with a fresh patch of green grass — the ideal place to sprawl on a picnic blanket with a good read or chill music.

Speaking of interactive or functional art, my all-time favorite piece is the absolutely stunning chandelier gracing the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building. Although it is true that I considered it more of a light fixture than artwork when I first saw it, I’ve come to realize that functional art can be a form of public art. I love how the hundreds of navy curls dance among light blue streaks that intertwine with white ringlets, creating a graceful yet Medusa-esque image. I almost expect each of the three masses concentrated at the piece’s center to start warping, swirling around and coming to life — the edges extending to cultivate one powerful clump of spirals, big enough to fill the entire building. But for now, the masses hang vertically on nearly invisible cable in order of decreasing size. Visible from all levels of the building, the work’s blue hues match perfectly with the bustling researcher’s blue latex gloves and hefty lab coats.  In short, the glass masterpiece could be interpreted as an abstract depiction of the sea, though it is called “Tre Stelle di Lapis Lazuli” — three stars of the Lapis Lazuli gemstone. It is made up of 2,071 individual pieces of blown glass and, surprisingly, weighs more than “The Stanford Legacy.” Enhancing the sense of splendor further, the wall behind it consists of solely windows, letting in natural sunlight as well as providing a contrasting black backdrop that enables the chandelier to illuminate  with gold light.

Contrary to my initial assumptions, this work serves a much larger purpose than enticing people to come visit the research building. Rather, it was commissioned to artist Dale Chihuly because — as the director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine put it in 2010 —  “[a]rt can inspire people in life’s activities, and artworks provide important symbols that remind us why we are doing what we are doing … it reminds [the researchers] of the importance of interaction across disciplines, and that such creative interactions are going on in this place.” It was all made possible by a donation from a non-profit organization dedicated to funding cancer research, My Blue Dots. Instead of a narrative arc or an interactive fountain, this chandelier is more a representation of the important synergies between art and science, whether or not the public realizes it; it serves to both physically light the room and remind researchers of an interdisciplinary concept.

While we may never be fully aware of all the public art around us, even just on this campus, it’s important to understand that the art stands for something that is more than just physically visible. Whether it is a narrative of the University’s founders, an interactive social gathering spot or a representation of the relationship between science and art, every artwork has a double identity — a deeper purpose that will stay hidden until actively inquired about. But when its story is uncovered, you will gain more appreciation for a piece that you once just breezed past. There’s a certain added value that comes with knowing the history of something that you pass by every day and having the power to share that enriching story with others. To say the very least, it makes walks around campus more interesting. So the next time you’re biking or walking, take a moment to observe your surroundings. Breathe in the fresh air, take in the sunlight and, if there’s a piece that catches your eye, look for its placard — I promise it won’t disappoint.

Contact Serena Soh at sjsoh ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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