Atelier InSite: A marriage of art and mortar

April 29, 2013

Art in itself is reflective of the depth and breadth of the human condition. Marry art with an inanimate object like a building, and it can tell its own story and set the tone for collaboration within its walls.

Such is the goal for Atelier InSite, a Creative Inquiry program that focuses on the implementation of public artwork at Clemson University. This student-driven initiative encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration and provides hands-on opportunities for students to conduct research on the nature of public art, investigate the design build process, conduct site analysis and identify site locations for artwork.

Led by Clemson professors David Detrich, Joey Manson and Denise Woodward-Detrich, this initiative got its start more than a decade ago when university funds were set aside in support of the Art Partnership Program, a collaborative effort among the Office of the President, the Department of Art and other academic units on campus. The program solicits and commissions the creation of site-specific works of art, which are permanently featured at various campus locations.

Birth of a Creative Inquiry program

Clemson’s design guidelines for current and future campus projects stipulate, “All capital development projects that are anticipated to exceed two million dollars will consider the benefits of public art and will apply 1/2 of 1 percent of the construction budget for such work.”

Last year, Detrich and his team were invited to a planning session for Clemson’s new $50 million, 100,000-square-foot life sciences facility project. The team was asked to make recommendations about the introduction of art into the facility design. As part of the pitch, the team proposed student participation by way of a Creative Inquiry class, which is Clemson’s undergraduate research program.

“We want to establish a new model for how other universities can implement art,” Detrich explained. “To encourage student participation and engagement, we recommended that the project be implemented through Creative Inquiry and that it be by students, for students.”

By students for students

In August 2012, the Atelier InSite Creative Inquiry program was approved, and Detrich and his team went to work to recruit both art and life sciences students and create a strategy focused on a central theme of research. In addition to implementing artwork for the new building, they were also given the charge to help dedicate the new life sciences facility in a unique way that reflects sciences and the arts.

Instead of a typical ribbon-cutting that marks the opening of a building, students created a sculpture of a plasmid. Used in the study of molecular biology and genetics, a plasmid is a DNA molecule that is engineered to include desired genes. In a process called transformation, the circular plasmid is introduced into a cell where change is wanted and the plasmid effective brings about that change.

“Because the life sciences facility is designed for an open exchange of research among different areas, the plasmid is a symbol of collaboration among those entities,” Detrich said.

Pairing students from diverse disciplines can be challenging. But the process of investigating and understanding unique thought can result in holistic perspectives. Detrich and his team leveraged that by creating “get-acquainted sessions” in which art students presented a “What is art?” program to their life sciences peers. In return, the life sciences students presented “What is life sciences?” to their art student counterparts.

“It was a good exercise to get the students from different academic areas working together,” Detrich said.

So that everyone was on the same page, students devised a glossary of terms that were common to both the arts and life sciences areas and wrote a mission statement and guiding principles.

The students together researched site-specific art, participated in building tours and made recommendations regarding the placement of art in the new facility. The recommendations will become actual works of art in the building and currently appear as placeholders in the form of question marks. The question marks contain images that represent a blend of art and the sciences.

The Atelier InSite Creative Inquiry program will soon focus on the Watt Family Innovation Center and the Lee III building, which recently won a national award for design achievement from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

“The hope is that students who sign up for a Creative Inquiry come back the next year,” Detrich said. “Because of the success of this interdisciplinary collaboration, every student who participated came back. They now see art as being important to their university experience. It’s a physical, tangible part of the legacy they are leaving behind. That’s what empowers them and keeps them interested.”


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