St. Paul halls come alive with ecological public art

by Douglas Rojas

Tunnels connecting the ecology building basement on the St. Paul Campus with other buildings used to be long corridors of dull space.
Now, images on the walls depicting animal behaviors, plant communities and other ecological themes illustrate the paths of those who pass by.
These images, part of a public- art permanent installation called Eco-Rhythms, fuse ecological themes in wall patterns that attempt to explain ecology artistically, said Athena Tacha, the creator of the piece.
“It is a visual poem about ecology and its themes,” Tacha wrote in her opening statement to the Eco-Rhythms guide. Tacha is a native of Greece and is currently a sculpture professor at Oberlin College in Ohio.
The artwork consists of 280 images printed on 16×16-inch black granite plaques through a system called “sand blasting,” which carved the images onto the plaques with a high degree of definition. These images are accompanied by informational texts which explain ecology themes such as animal behavior, ecosystems, Minnesota ecology and evolution. The project was developed over two years; it officially opened April 18.
Eco-Rhythms is a joint effort of artists and faculty members working on a public art project, the first of its kind at the University. It reflects research currently taking place in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University, said ecology professor Frank Barnwell.
“We don’t know of any project like this around the country,” said Barnwell, who was named a co-author of the project for his work.
The images, Tacha said, “create a story about what’s ecology at this moment in history with this particular faculty and at this department.”
Faculty provided the photos, which come from the research they perform at the University. Tacha arranged them in a way to give the art meaning.
“It looks like tiles put up in the wall, but everything in it involves decisions by her,” Barnwell said.
“Every time I walk by there I see different associations between images,” Barnwell said.
The art project is also a way to recognize the research done in the ecology department, one of the top- ranked departments in the University, said Patrice Morrow, the ecology, behavior and evolution department head.
“We are proud of what we do and we do nifty stuff all over the world,” Morrow said. “Everybody was very excited at first about working with the artist. But it turned out to be a lot of work for us.”
Faculty and artists worked closely in selecting the images and cooperatively writing the project’s texts.
“Athena turned the whole thing around,” Barnwell said. “She said we are the ones who are going to contribute the material for the artwork.”
Tacha said the art piece has two important components. One component is the narrative built through the images. A second component is how people perceive the images through their body as they walk through the building, she said.
“It’s music to the eye and to the body,” Tacha said.
Furthermore, Eco-Rhythms gives the building a different atmosphere.
“I didn’t realize how bare the building was until it was put in,” said Charles Mitchell, an ecology graduate student who was at the installation’s opening. “It adds something to the building that was lacking, something that makes it distinctive,” he said.
“It makes it more lively,” said Sonia Altizer, a graduate student in ecology. “I hope it sparks people’s interest in learning more about ecology,” she said.
The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in the late 1980s requiring that one percent of building construction budgets funded by the state must be used for public art.
Since 1989 the University has been actively involved promoting public art on campus, said Gulgun Kayim, public art on campus coordinator. So far, she said, three public art pieces have been completed on the St. Paul campus.
“Public art has the potential to bring people together,” Kayim said. “I consider this (Eco-Rhythms) a very successful project of the University community with the artist to produce art,” she said.
Currently, artist Tacha is working on another St. Paul project — a sculpture for the campus recreation center. Construction began last Thursday.