Commissioned art to ‘uplift’ campus landscape

| April 25, 2014

A site-specific sculpture to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Friends of Art will soon adorn an area near Sweet Briar’s Mary Helen Cochran Library and its brand-new addition.

Catherine Peek at Sweet Briar

After inviting about two dozen artists to submit proposals last spring, the Friends of Art selected alumna and Blue Ridge Architects associate Catherine Peek ’01, who will be working with students and a campus committee to realize her vision in the coming months.

Titled “Uplift” in reference to the 1880s to 1920s women’s movement, Peek’s sculpture will pay homage to Sweet Briar’s history as a women’s college and to its natural surroundings. Red clay, which constitutes most of the soil on campus, will be central to the artwork and will be represented by vivid-hued monolithic retaining walls “sweeping across the site,” Peek said.

“I was intrigued by her ability to make a deep connection between the Sweet Briar landscape, the rolling green hills and dells, and the mission of the college, which has focused over the decades on educating young women to meet the challenges of the world,” said Friends of Art president Molly Sutherland Gwinn ’65.

The idea, Peek explained in her proposal, is to sculpt the earth into ribbons that “lift in waves to reveal cut sections of vivid-hue retaining wall,” exposing the “materiality beneath the rising earth in a simple architectural gesture; to make evident what is latent in the place.”

The mountain ranges surrounding campus served as the main inspiration for the piece, says Peek, who graduated from Sweet Briar with a degree in mathematical physics.

“The first idea had been more of a canopy, but I was frustrated with the way a canopy would connect with the earth — it just never seemed rooted enough,” she said. “I imagined the way I wanted the space to feel, and I was doing some collage work to sketch the feel of things, when something gelled and the ribbons of earth moving past each other in waves took shape in my mind. … Once I ‘saw’ the earth sculpted in my mind, I knew it was the right thing.”

The mock-up included in Peek’s proposal shows what the sculpture will look like, but envisions it much closer to the rear of the library addition, whereas Peek is now considering moving it closer to the terrace.

While imitating Sweet Briar’s natural surroundings on a smaller scale, the sculpture also focuses on the tectonic meaning of the word “uplift” and is meant to symbolize how women around the turn of the century supported each other through education, faith, community and hard work.

“Each row stands on the shoulders of the preceding row, similar to women standing on the shoulders of preceding generations,” the proposal states.

Aside from its symbolic significance, Peek hopes her sculpture will combine aesthetics and functionality.

“The scale of the waves will be large enough to present a compelling visual effect … and human-sensitive to make it an enjoyable spot to relax on,” she wrote in her proposal. “The intent is for the area to become well-used by students in pleasant weather and a possible venue for the occasional outdoor class.”

The sculpture’s playful waves will also complement the ship-like form of the library addition, she added.

According to galleries director Karol Lawson, this is the first time the College has commissioned a site-specific work of art. It will also be the first earthwork on campus. Lawson is the staff liaison for the Friends of Art and advised Gwinn and the Friends’ acquisitions committee chair Reyhan Tansal Larimer ’62 during the selection process, which included inviting three artists to campus. She also has been managing the project from day one.

Peek’s idea stood out to Lawson, who was impressed with the sculpture’s connection to the history and geography of Sweet Briar’s campus — along with its practical potential. “This time next year, I hope to see students lounging on its gentle swells,” she said.

In addition, Lawson is pleased with the project’s solid financial footing — thanks to Gwinn and the Friends of Art board, she says.

“I strongly commend FOA for its embrace of this new adventure,” Lawson said. “We’re headed into this project with the budget fully covered because of their efforts. The FOA board’s gracious goodwill towards our colleagues and friends in Cochran Library, who’ve waited a long time for this expansion and renovation, is gratifying. It is exciting for FOA to be a part of the library’s new era.”

A model of “Uplift” illustrates the artwork’s tectonic structure.

Friends of Art has set aside $50,000 to develop and complete the project. The money was raised over the past two years from members’ contributions that would have otherwise gone to purchase art for the galleries, Gwinn says.

“This was really in response to student and community requests for a sculpture,” she said.

Gwinn is excited to help realize the College’s desire for a three-dimensional work of art, and she’s especially happy to support such a collaborative project.

“It’s as much about the educational experience as it is about the finished piece,” she said.

Last week, Peek visited campus to meet with an ad-hoc steering committee consisting of faculty and staff from various departments, including physical plant personnel and studio art and art history professors, as well as faculty from departments as diverse as theater, math and English.

“The committee and I talked about materials and the possibility of using a stone rather than concrete,” Peek said. “We also discussed drainage, location, weathering, the nature of the ground cover, and opportunities to integrate curriculum into the design and construction of the project.”

Peek also had the chance to talk to art history professor Tracy Hamilton’s Land as Art class. While touring the planned sculpture site below the library addition, students gave input on which exact location they thought would be best.

“We noticed locating the sculpture closer to the prow of the ship would yield better connectivity to the library and patio; and better light,” Peek said.

Peek toured the site with Sweet Briar students last week.

Considering various perspectives and relying on insight from others is an important part of her work, Peek says.

“Because of my experience at Sweet Briar, I am comfortable bringing the value of different subjects to the table early on in the creative process,” she said. “I pull from a broad array of disciplines when I am stuck, which is a huge advantage.”

Collaboration is key in her day-to-day work with Blue Ridge Architects, as well. The firm is currently working on a science center for Eastern Mennonite University, a large project that involves many hands and minds.

“The ability to communicate clearly is important in the profession of architecture, as is the willingness to research and the ability to ask good questions,” Peek said.

But she’s also an individualist and a visionary, always looking for ways to incorporate her interest in math, physics and architecture.

In 2012, Peek won the Washington Monument Ideas Competition for an interactive lighting installation that measures and maps foot traffic volume through piezoelectric technology. She also has a longstanding interest and involvement in urban design, planning and strategic visioning.

Peek says her project for Sweet Briar has inspired her to create outdoor spaces for other schools, as well.

“I am riveted by serving this niche of campuses that value the experience of learning in the open,” she said. “Schools have a natural energy, playfulness and engagement that really resonate with my approach and sense of style.”

Construction of Peek’s sculpture is set to begin this fall, along with workshops that will engage students in the creative process. Peek hopes to complete the project in time for the library dedication on Nov. 7.

Janika Carey

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Category: A Landscape for Learning, Art Galleries, Friends of Art, Library