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Kirkland’s vision will give STEPS a unique sense of place



A recent piece by Larry Kirkland entitled El Inercambio was created for a new medical school in El Paso, Texas.

As construction on the new STEPS facility continues, the university is looking for a way to make the space entirely unique to Lehigh. Artist Larry Kirkland is aiding in that process.

Lehigh has engaged Kirkland, a Washington D.C.-based artist, to create a concept for producing and incorporating original works of art into the STEPS building, which will bring together people from across the campus to focus on science, technology, environment, policy and society.

“I don’t want this to look like a science museum. That’s a typical misstep,” Kirkland says. “I want it to inspire future generations to study the environment in a way that keeps this magical place a healthy place.”

Kirkland’s work is site-specific public art. It’s a process that uses art installations and environments to create beautiful, meaningful places. His work appears throughout the world at places like Pennsylvania Station in New York, Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur, Central Station in Hong Kong and the American Red Cross U.S. Headquarters and The National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. Each project was created specific to place and community.

“Where I start with my work is listening,” says Kirkland, who at the start of his creative process asks the question, “Who are we when we are here?” The answers help to inform the concept that artisans and craftsman will use to create a large-scale aesthetic environment for the community it serves.

For a recent installation at the Denver Children’s Hospital, Kirkland met with caregivers, emergency room workers, patients, parents of patients, and long-term care givers. The final piece eventually sprang from a group of teens who were either born or cared for at the hospital and had “dreams of being normal.” The work helped express what it was like to live an active life in Colorado.

Kirkland utilized that same process at Lehigh last semester, familiarizing himself with the campus, the City of Bethlehem, meeting with the faculty and staff that will reside and work in the STEPS facility upon its completion, and learning about Lehigh’s strengths in teaching and research.

In early February, Kirkland revisited Lehigh and presented his initial concept for STEPS, one that is based around two central themes he believes truly represent the essence of what will transpire within the new building—stewardship and use.

“You are all stewards who move us all forward so this wonderful planet doesn’t degrade more,” he told members of the Lehigh community.

STEPS' “spiritual heart”

The courtyard and lobby of the ‘A’ wing—described by Kirkland as the “spiritual heart” of the new facility, is where he envisions carrying out the theme of stewardship. He drew from a quote by John Muir from 1911: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The quote sparked an image of a black granite floor engraved with a design that appears as woven cloth, with a human hand beginning to unravel a single thread. Muir’s quote would appear on surrounding benches.

Water also features prominently throughout much of Kirkland’s concepts.

“Water has become the key,” he says. “These people are all dealing with planet earth and this is the water planet. Bethlehem is here because of water. Water informs this place. Water and water resources are going to be one of the biggest challenges worldwide.”

Kirkland imagines the back wall of the ‘A’ wing as a water wall. The water will run over granite engraved with touching hands—tying this sense of use to being good stewards of our natural resources. Benches, shaped into cylindrical waves, would also carry this theme of water.

There is also great opportunity in the STEPS atrium which Kirkland sees the nexus of where the building comes together.

“A big window wall has the opportunity to be emblematic of what this place is,” he says, adding that he imagines illuminated trees and their roots etched in the glass. “Trees and roots symbolize who we are as a people and how we treat the earth.”

While these are just a few of the ideas Kirkland presented for the new facility, his concepts are a jumping off point for how the new building might offer meaning to the Lehigh community and to all those who pass through its halls. The STEPS building program committee will move forward in the hopes of bringing the concepts to life.

“Most of America is built without the future in mind as an aesthetic place,” Kirkland says, but, “There are many visionaries and programs that say art in your environment is as important as anything else.”

For more information on Lehigh’s STEPS initiative, visit www.lehigh.edu/steps.

--Tricia Long


Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2009

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