Bridging Realities

Bringing the two dimensions into the three is not a common opportunity for a graphic designer. Yet with fine art experience in materials and installations, serving as the illustrator for a major glass work is a highlight of my career.

The entrance doors to the new student union at the University of Wisconsin in Madison were featured at the grand opening of the building yesterday. How could they not be featured when they are the very first thing people see upon arriving? Coming into Union South from the concrete and institutional buildings surrounding the arrivee, literally in their faces (because they walk right up to doors) is enveloped in shimmering panels of prarie images, frozen and frosted in time, textures engulfing like a cloud.

glass mural

Closeups of the glass show the richness of textures.

Similar to the Japanese concept of “en space,” these panels of drawn images are reminiscent of brush painting, screens, and the use of bridging the outside to the inside. Further, the sweeping forms remind the visitor that this building stands where once the landscape was this kind of prairie.

Having helped to research the plants, visited the prairie, worked with photographs, drew all the images, cut the masks, all the time visualized this result, the piece had its risks. Testing the techniques on small squares of glass in advance gave the team no reassurance that the result would be the atmospheric experience planned.

glass contrast

Glass doors provide transition from outside to inside while paying respect to the landscape that was at the site.

Three years ago, my sister Jill Sebastian, won the commission to be the lead artist for this new public building so needed on campus. About a dozen artists were chosen by the art board to bring the theme of the prairie into this architecture. Wisconsin has the art endowment law that any public building must spend 1% of its building budget on art. And someone has to oversee that. Fortunately for me, they chose my sister. And she proceeded to hire various studio artists to execute the plans. I received two assignments: the first is to illustrate the doors for the entrance. Collaborating with Jill on how it all works together, her design layed out the 17 panels. The doors for me to execute were to be dense close-up vegetation and the glass mural over the doors was to be the further distance and landscape of significant trees.

Getting to know trees by drawing them revealed that each is a character. Whether they cluster as they grow or stand solo in the middle of the field gives them each a role in the landscape. I drew 70 trees—predominately burr oaks—with over 50 used in the final. Trying out various combinations, integrating with the realism of the prairie as portrayed in Jake Fuller’s video, all lend authenticity to the forms. During the day, the outside architecture of this site interacts with the frosted landscape. The light is always changing, so the visual effect is never the same. Next to, and also will be projected onto, Jake’s video expresses the seasons and adds to the structure of the winter images I constructed.

doors with mural

Glass doors surround those outside waiting to come into the new building.

Yesterday the opening was the first chance I had to see the panels installed. After the drawing I cut masks and worked at the glass factory on the various layers of effects. Babying this piece all the way through, it was odd not to be there for its installation, but it is three hours away driving, 1/2 day travel by train systems. Jill was also working on her bronze fire place and several other installations. She has four major pieces there: the doors with me, the fire place, the whirligig fireplace (she collaborated with scupture students on this not-yet-finished work scheduled for the fall), and the Aldo Leopold quotation that I created (see next report).

To finish up on the entrance murals in glass, I am thrilled at the atmospheric and thematic results. However, the opening was a circus. It surprised me to find the place mobbed with people. Readers must understand that I am a person to avoid big crowds. And this building had people dripping out of the wordwork! So needed, the student union was instantly jammed with laptop-focused students—nooks and crannies everywhere for them to escape with headphones and noses inches away from a screen, just like I am now. There is something energizing about being a quiet concentrating island in the middle of a bustling constant activity. I find it hard to interact with art in such a chaos, but was able to sit with my sister and particularly enjoy watching Jake’s video through all the seasonal changes.

lights atmospheric

Lights create atmospheric effects.

Though I felt overwhelmed by the croweds, I also felt the building itself very confusing, feeling much like a little rat in a maze. I was also astounded at the level of commercialism present. Unlike the student lounge when I was in college where kicking back on couches with friends and a cup of coffee from the little cafeteria cafe, now the such a place is more reminiscent of the airport. It would be much harder to be a poor student today, as the union is buzzing with expresso, nachos, wine bars, tourism bureaus, nachos, sandwiches, and pizza. Every dead-end hallway, and they spider out all over the place, ends up at another counter to spend money. Neon signs everywhere, the art is interspersed as visual oasis in a chaotic jungle of images. But the art is there and that is the point.

The most exciting part of viewing this major project is to watch people going through it, the shadowy forms that augment the shapes becoming a part of the movement and sensation the site provides.  The landscape beautifully reminds the viewer of indigenous world that we are so quickly losing, while at the same time becomes something quite heightened and with its own integrity, enhanced by authencity.

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One Response to “Bridging Realities”

  1. Betty Butler Says:

    It is absolutely wonderful Liane! I love the use of the line drawings of tress integrated into the glass with the varying atmospheric effects. With students coming and going everyday it really is art for the people. Congratulations

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