A campus dotted with art

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February 16, 2007

4:10 PM

It is nearly impossible to traverse the College’s campus — New or Old — without passing by at least one of the works of art that dot the grounds. Students regard these statues as pieces of College lore, installed on some indeterminate date and scheduled to remain there indefinitely. But each piece has its history.

p. The statues range from the ancient Lord Botetourt in the triangular area at the mouth of Colonial Williamsburg to the modern orb statue situated behind Rogers Hall and mysteriously called “Oliver.” As it turns out, many of the pieces are remnants of the College’s Tercentenary CelebratiCon in 1993, which may seem like ancient history to today’s students, but is much more recent relative to the school’s lifetime.

p. A natural place to start describing the art on campus is the statue of Lord Botetourt that greets stray CW tourists and students returning from the Cheese Shop. The current version was sculpted by Gordon Kray, ’73, and was installed in 1993 as part of the College’s observance of its Tercentenary.

p. Botetourt as we now know him is actually an interpretation of the original statue, sculpted by Richard Hayword and commissioned by the Virginia House of Burgesses in the 18th century. The original is currently on display in the basement of Earl Gregg Swem Library, but is missing several of its original elements, including an arm and the nose, according to Louise Kale, director of the historic campus at the College.

p. “It would be incorrect to call [the current statue] a reproduction or a replica of the marble original,” she said. “Gordon Kray interpreted the marble statue and added the missing elements as he thought they would have appeared.”

p. The original statue resided in Ancient Campus from 1801 until 1958, with a brief respite during the Civil War. Kale said that before Kray’s interpretation was installed, alumni used to wax nostalgic for the time they had attended the College and endured a freshman “hazing” that required them to “recognize Lord Botetourt with a bow or curtsey each time they passed the statue.”

p. Proceeding into campus, past the Christopher Wren Building, students will find the infamous statue of Thomas Jefferson. If you took a campus tour with one of the College’s best backward walkers before you arrived for orientation, you were probably told about how the statue was a gift from the University of Virginia for the College’s Tercentenary. It was, although it was officially given to the College in 1992.

p. There are tales that the statue is gazing toward Charlottesville, the university that Jefferson founded in 1824. That fact seems to be, at best, unsubstantiated. You might have also heard that an intrepid math major once measured the angle of TJ’s line of sight and found that his stare is directed at the third floor girls’ bathroom in Washington Hall. Any tour guide will tell you that this is great tour fodder, but you’d probably be hard pressed to find one who can prove it.

p. Looking across the Sunken Garden, one is met with the imposing gaze of the Reverend James Blair, yet another member of the statue class of ’93. This piece was sculpted by professor emeritus of art Lewis Cohen. Cohen, who retired last spring, donated many of the plaster models that he created to the Muscarelle Museum, according to museum Director Aaron De Groft, ’88. While most of the pieces are in storage, students can view a scale plaster model in the first floor lobby of James Blair Hall.

p. Cutting across Landrum Drive and around Rogers Hall, students encounter what, to the untrained eye, may look like an alien space vehicle. In fact, it’s just “Oliver,” a statue designed and executed by Robert Engram, the artist-in-residence at the College in the spring of 1979.

p. Several students have wondered about the curious name. Kale, who at one point was the registrar of the Muscarelle, had an insight about its origins. Kale remembered that Engram was having trouble coming up with a name during the construction of the statue. “Miles Chappell, [then the chair of the art and art history departments,] had a young son at the time whose name was Oliver, and he happened to have a round head that resembled Engram’s design,” she said. “Everyone is intrigued by the big mystery of the name, and then you find out it’s just because Oliver Chappell had a big head.”

p. Just around the corner of Andrews Hall lies the Muscarelle, a logical spot for the discussion of art on campus. The Muscarelle is home to the solar wall, perhaps the College’s most visible piece of art. Officially titled “Sun Sonata,” the wall of pillars filled with colorfully dyed water was the creation of renowned color field painter Gene Davis.

p. The project was originally designed as a way to cheaply provide heat to the museum — the water in the pillars would be heated by the sun and distribute heat to the inside of the building. However, when the wall was first constructed, the tubes were left uncolored and were considered an eyesore.

p. Then-Muscarelle Director Greg Lowry, who is now the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, contacted Davis because of his extensive knowledge of color theory. The solar wall endeavor represented a departure from Davis’ usual medium, but De Groft said he is fond of the results.

p. “It’s been an icon along Jamestown Road for a long time now,” he said. “It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind light sculpture. People have come to recognize it, especially at night, because it’s such a neat thing for our campus to have — it sticks out.”

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