Friday, December 9, 2011

An idea that shifts with wind, water and light

Art meets science on the Emory Quad, in the form of "Piedmont Divide."

By Carol Clark

As you approach the Emory Quadrangle on a sunny afternoon, you see what looks like a giant crystal chandelier floating amid the canopy of the oak trees. As you walk beneath it, the swaying “chandelier” appears as ephemeral as a cloud, or a seeding dandelion.

One thing that Emory’s new sculpture, called “Piedmont Divide,” does not resemble is the thousands of recycled plastic bottles that comprise it.

“I didn’t expect the sort of precious quality of the material, just how much the sunlight and wind would do this,” says the sculpture’s creator, environmental artist John Grade.

“It was remarkable to see the plastic bottles change from trash into these things that look so organic,” says Julia Kjelgaard, chair of the visual arts department.

The visual arts department invited Grade (pronounced “grotty”), a Seattle-based artist who draws from science and nature, to create a piece for Emory. After a whirlwind two-day visit, and many meetings with faculty, Grade decided to do a piece that would reflect the campus environment, as well as Emory’s research into West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

Grade returned to his Seattle studio to ponder what material he should use to tie all of those themes together. “It was an ‘aha’ moment,” Grade says of the idea of recycling plastic drinking bottles. “I realized that there was this relationship with Coca-Cola supporting the university, and I thought about how to use that product and transform it in some way for this environment.”

In November, Grade returned to Emory with two assistants: Seattle sculptor Dilyara Maganya and civil engineer Travis Stanley. Over 13 days, the three enlisted volunteers from across campus to melt down thousands of discarded drinking bottles and help assemble “Piedmont Divide.”

John Grade at work on the Emory Quad.

“I’ve had this desire to make something with many people,” he says of the group effort. “So I don’t have full control, and you actually have a social contract, a group of people crafting something together and figuring it out along the way. Your end result may not be perfectly made, but you have all these interesting decisions from different people along the way that completely change it.”

Each plastic bottle was cut into a spiral and melted into a long, curving stalk that curled into a dainty little cup at the end. The cups are designed to hold a few drops of rainwater. Click here to see a video of how the sculpture was made.

A tornado siren went off as Grade was standing on a 20-foot platform on the Quad, putting the final touches on the piece. He watched as a gentle rain began filling the thousands of little cups, and the ephemeral character of the sculpture shifted slightly as it took on the weight of the water. The tiny pools of water suspended by the sculpture are an allusion to incubators for mosquitoes.

On a far side of campus from the Quad’s floating chandelier, the second half of “Piedmont Divide” is set in the lake of Lullwater woods. There, the plastic stalks rise from the water like crystal reeds.

Grade says he wants “Piedmont Divide” to help people make connections, between different environments and between different water systems, and how both nature and man use them.

One of Grade’s greatest strengths as an environmental artist may be that he is not afraid of failure. He actually enjoys fielding the curve balls that nature throws at him.

He describes a sculpture he made in Arizona, elevated amid trees and made of edible bits that birds could eat. “The idea came to me because I feel like there’s a lot of ego involved inputting an object out into a landscape, when a lot of times the landscape is very interesting in and of itself,” Grade says. “So I liked the fact that these birds would pick apart this form that I made, and then just shit it all across the mesa.”

After the piece was installed, however, rodents crawled onto the sculpture’s guy wires and annoyed the birds to the point that they wouldn’t eat. “I thought, ‘Do I roll with what the environment comes back to me with, or try to change this,’” Grade recalls. In the end, a birder suggested that he spread a liquid form of jalapeno over the piece, which would thwart mammals but not birds.

As the “Piedmont Divide” shimmers on the Emory campus through spring, it will be interesting to see how the vision keeps shifting in the wind, water, light and creative spirit of a university.

Hal Jacobs contributed to this story through his video reports.

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