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.
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.”
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.