Published: April 16, 2019 By

Image: Sam Brown, fourth-year mechanical engineering student; and Martha Russo, CU instructor, artist (MFA’95)

A large-scale campus collaboration is underway to visually pay homage to the significant contributions CU Boulder has made to space exploration. The SpaceTime Underpass project will be a permanent public art installation inside the Regent pedestrian underpass.

Projected design of Regent underpass

Projected design of Regent underpass; rendering by Demiurge art fabricators, Denver

A team of CU Boulder students, faculty and staff from engineering, art and art history, environmental design and business are collaborating on the project, spearheaded by Martha Russo, an installation artist and CU Boulder art instructor, and led by Denver artist Bruce Price.

The Regent underpass is a high-traffic east entrance to a pedestrian path that extends across campus. Every day, 3,000 people use the underpass when the university is in session.

“We want the installation to be visually stunning,” Russo said. “It won’t just be a static piece of art. We want people to enter the underpass and be delighted and amazed, and to wonder about all the elements we’ve added.”

The project started with a request sent to faculty in the Department of Art and Art History to submit proposals and ideas for installing permanent public art in the underpass. Since Russo is a sculptor practiced at large installation art, and teaches a class about sculpture, installation and public art with students engaging in internships with artists and art fabricators, she jumped at the opportunity to get her students involved.

Students in Russo’s course Art, Design & Engineering: Cross-Disciplinary Thinking and Making are at the core of the design and fabrication teams working with local professional art fabricators in Denver and Boulder.

“The project is a continuing dialogue with many campus programs,” Russo said. “Our hope is that the underpass will be a catalyst for discussions, a place to stage performances as well as a visual teaching tool. We want to create an ongoing dialogue across many fields of inquiry and disciplines.”

The space theme for the underpass dovetails with the location of nearby Fiske Planetarium and the scale model solar system, a memorial to astronaut Ellison Onizuka, a CU graduate who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The underpass is positioned between the Mars and Jupiter sculptures, which is where the asteroid belt in our solar system is located.

Selecting materials to be used in the installation

Sample finishes for the various materials being used in the underpass

Influenced by CU Boulder’s relationship to space exploration, the underpass will be fitted with colored concrete relief panels textured with 3D topographical imagery of the surface of the dwarf planet Vesta, located in the asteroid belt.

The concrete frieze will have a repeating pattern based on the three large craters on Vesta. The pattern is called “the snowman” because the craters are stacked one on top of the other. The names of CU alumni, faculty and staff who have advanced CU Boulder’s contributions to space science and exploration will be engraved on the frieze.

As a reference to the silence of space, a circular stainless-steel disc will be attached to the ceiling of the underpass alluding to the enigmatic, avant-garde piece by experimental composer John Cage. Titled 4’33” (pronounced 4 minutes, 33 seconds), the composition has no music—only silence.

Students get hands-on experience

The idea for the SpaceTime Underpass was conceived in Russo’s interdisciplinary art, design and engineering class composed of students in studio arts, engineering, environmental design, business and communication. Students learned about sculpture, with an emphasis on making and installing large-scale public art.

Last year, Russo asked artist Bruce Price to help develop a project with her students. To kick off the group project, students were encouraged to draw inspiration from three themes—geology, digital media and conviviality—when conceptualizing their art project. Students picked Pluto, digital fabrication processes using laser cutters and CNC machines, and music by the John Cage.

First prototype of the wall casts

First prototype of the wall casts

Price taught undergraduate art for 20 years while serving as director at the Institute for Experimental Studies at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design.

“For Martha’s class, the three domains of digital media, geology and conviviality were selected to create a field for ideas and actions,” Price said. “My influence in this selection was driven by my interest in radical difference. The point (of the exercise) was to bring together disperse domains to create an arena for actions in the production of difference.”

Price said what he hopes students learned by working on a real-world public art project is the “experience  in the cultivation and importance of difference, confusion, uncertainty and creativity in the production of the new.”

After consulting with Bryan Holler, a doctoral student in astrophysical and planetary sciences who was working on his thesis about Pluto, students made ceramic plates embossed with surface imagery from Pluto. The nine-sided plates (nine for Pluto’s position in the solar system) were used at a reception kicking off the SpaceTime Underpass project in fall 2017 at the Visual Arts Complex.

“What’s fantastic working with the students is that everybody is so excited about it,” Russo said. “I feel like we’ve created a community around this project.”

Fundraising is underway with a project install date of June 2020.

Natalie Bognano graduated in 2018 with a degree in environmental design. She’s working in fashion management and will return to CU Boulder to get an MBA.

She helped the team develop a scale model to use in presentations. Using the resources in the environmental design program and skills she learned during the project, Bognano helped make a 3D RHINO model of the underpass. (RHINO is a computer modeling software program that helps make 3D renderings.) They used renderings of the concrete walls and ceilings to print onto interchangeable panels to show various versions of the project.

“All of the skills I utilized in this project were taken directly from my environmental design degree,” she said. “Martha Russo’s class, Introduction to Art and Engineering, was the biggest preparation for the project. Her class taught me how we have to learn to work across disciplines and what it’s like to need people of different skills sets to complete projects. In the real world, you to have to work with people of different backgrounds to make something a reality. Huge shout out to that class and Martha for everything she taught us!”

Galen Melchert graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2018. He was an intern working with Russo and Price to lay the foundation for the project. This included project feasibility, structural engineering, exploring the range of possibilities with materials such as concrete and steel, and making some art along the way.

“I had to learn the different languages of everyone involved,” he said. “Being able to pick up on what (the artist) was talking about and translate that art speech to the administrators and fabricators, and vice versa, was a great lesson I expect to use a lot moving forward.”

A highlight of the project for Melchert was being able to combine his engineering toolbox with artistic endeavors. He took a NASA 3D model of the asteroid Vesta and designed a bowl that could be cast in porcelain slip. They 3D printed the bowl in the Idea Forge on campus and made plaster molds. The bowls will be used for future events inspired by the underpass public art piece.

He plans to continue the theme of integrating art, science and engineering by exploring the creative process through machine learning, physics and art.

“I’ve found that truth lives in creation, and I’m fascinated with what we may discover as we create,” he said.

Sam Brown, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, was an intern working with Melchert and Bruce during the fall of 2018. Brown’s job was to visualize the artwork with 3D software and develop a final design for the art piece. He has also worked in computer-aided design (CAD). Working with environmental engineering students helped him create a bump map (a computer graphics program for simulating bumps and wrinkles on the surface of an object) based on light images of the surface of Vesta.

“I hope people walking through the underpass will take a minute and slow down,” he said. ”I hope they see something different that takes them out of their daily lives, to think about the bigger picture, a world outside what we’re used to.”

Working on this project led Brown to the realization that he wants to keep creating things in CAD.

“I never thought you could do anything close to something this cool” he said. “I thought engineering would be just a job of numbers and straight lines instead of free, independent thought with art.”