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Public art at UC Davis draws on natural elements

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From page A1 | October 25, 2013 |

TilesW

Ken Jones, a masonry foreman, installs ceramic tiles in the pavement outside Peter A. Rock Hall (formerly Chem 194) on the UC Davis campus. "The Elements of Life” is the newest public art from UCD's Art-Science Fusion Program, led by co-directors Diane Ullman and Donna Billick. It is made up of of 39, 11-by-11 inch tiles featuring selected elements from the periodic table. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

In the center of campus, a new work of public art depicts three dozen chemical elements: oxygen, phosphorous and zinc and the like. In another part of campus, one of those elements, iron (in the form of shovel heads), is being put to use in another work of public art.

You can see the “Elements of Life” in the new plaza in front of Rock Hall; the installation took place just before the start of the new academic year. The shovel sculpture, in the Arboretum, is far enough along to allow for a dedication ceremony this weekend.

Besides iron, the artworks have something else in common: The “Elements of Life” tells “the story of how the chemical elements intertwine with all of life,” while the shovel art depicts the intertwining of the university and the city — in that the shovel heads make a gateway where the campus connects with downtown Davis, a vine-inspired arch that welcomes people into the city or into the Arboretum.

Here’s a closer look at both projects:

“Elements of Life”

A collaboration of the department of chemistry, Campus Planning and Community Resources, the Art-Science Fusion Program and community members, this installation comprises 39 unique, hand-crafted tiles, each one representing an element from the periodic table of elements — the basis for what goes on inside Rock Hall, the campus’ main lecture hall for chemistry.

The 11-inch-square tiles are evenly spaced in the concrete “floor” of the plaza that was built this summer as part of the Hutchison Drive corridor improvement project. The Rock Hall steps and a seating wall bound the plaza; bicycle parking has been moved to the east side of the building.

Chemistry students and faculty, other students from around the campus, Da Vinci High School students and others from the community made the tiles, in a project led by Diane Ullman and Donna Billick, co-founders and co-directors of the Art-Science Fusion Program.

Each tile includes the element’s symbol and atomic number, with artwork depicting some aspect of each element. For example: colorful balloons for helium, an image of Einstein for Einsteinium, and, for calcium, a skeleton to indicate the mineral’s importance to healthy bones. Further, the skeleton is dancing amid a sea of foods that are good sources of calcium.

Billick, a Davis-based artist, designed more than half the tiles; Ullman, a professor of entomology and associate dean in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, designed several; and students, faculty and community members designed the rest.

Annaliese Franz, associate professor of chemistry, reviewed the designs and cleared them with a committee of faculty and staff.

“Each tile has the unique hand of the artist on it, even when they rendered a design someone else created,” Ullman said.

Rock Hall went by the name Chem 194 until the summer of 2012, when the campus renamed the building in memory of chemistry professor Peter A. Rock, a member of the UCD faculty his entire career, for 42 years until his death in 2006.

His family played a part in two tile designs and assisted with production of many other tiles.

Rock’s wife of 46 years, Elaine, created a tile for rhodium, depicted by two pieces of jewelry made from the metal, a seagull brooch and a heart-shaped pendant, given by Peter to his wife. She shared that he chose rhodium because it is more durable than silver and does not tarnish.

Their daughter, Deborah Williams, designed and executed a tile for zinc, featuring a tube of zinc oxide — recalling her childhood, when her chemistry professor father touted zinc oxide as an inexpensive, preventative and cure-all.

“He followed me around with an open tube until I agreed to be a test subject in an experiment to be performed by, for and on me!” she recalls. “Well, Dad was right, zinc worked, as a spot sunscreen and to aid in the speed of healing everything from insect bites to rashes.”

Shovel sculpture

Remember recently when the Arboretum and the city asked for donations of old shovels? More than 400 came in, and Alabama-based artist Christopher Fennell started building the sculpture at the end of September.

He is building the sculpture on site, that is, in its final home in the new California Native Plant GATEway Garden at the east end of the Arboretum, behind the Davis Commons shopping center.

The sculpture rises from the dirt, “growing” into an arch over a walkway.

“At a distance, this gateway will look like vine-inspired ironwork, but up close the viewer will notice that the vine leaves are actually used shovel heads,” Fennell said.

“The diversity of shapes, sizes and rusty patterns on used shovel heads collected from the community will give the sculpture a richness and character that would be unattainable with new materials.”

The public is invited to the dedication ceremony from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. A brief program and ribbon-cutting are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

Fennell will still have a few days’ more work to do, but this weekend provided the best opportunity for the dedication before he heads home for the birth of his first child.

The sculpture, as yet unnamed, is part of a $1.3 million “urban greening” project, a city-campus collaboration funded primarily by state money.

The project comprises:

* The new GATEway garden, part of the Arboretum’s GATEways Project (GATE stands for Gardens, Arts and the Environment).

* Improvements to the city’s Putah Creek Parkway, which connects with the new garden. The pedestrian and bicycle path runs south from the garden, connecting Central Davis and South Davis (going under the Union Pacific railroad tracks and Interstate 80).

* The sculpture, paid for by the Davis Municipal Arts Fund.

Fennell said he envisioned a vine-inspired gateway years ago, but had not found the “perfect” location. Then he heard about the Davis Civic Arts Commission’s request for proposals for a gateway landmark between the city and the Arboretum, and he knew his search was over.

He had an easy time convincing the selection committee.

His idea of collaborating with the community to collect used shovels struck a chord with the committee for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the essential nature of shovels in developing the Arboretum and caring for its collections.

In addition, the shovel collection drive built on the Arboretum’s long history of community collaboration.

“When complete, this sculpture will serve as a landmark designating the link between the city of Davis and campus, a symbol of the strength of our city-campus-community partnership, an emblem of the power of co-creation, and a reminder of our roots,” Arboretum officials said.

— UC Davis News

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