From IWU Magazine, Spring 2012 edition
A Work of Art
Construction of the rotunda started in May. Work began this fall
to install the "Triple Helix" sculpture inside the rotunda. It serves
as a centerpiece for the School of Art's new entryway.
The new School of Art
rotunda captures attention
and sparks the imagination.
Story by TIM OBERMILLER
Photos by MARC FEATHERLY
Although it has served as backdrop for decades of creative work by Illinois Wesleyan's
faculty and students, the School of Art building, by itself, has never been seen as
That all changed this winter with the completion of a 2,400-square-foot glass rotunda
that serves as the building's new entryway. Suspended in the center, a large glass-and-metal
sculpture shimmers and pulsates in an ever-shifting tableau of light and color.
"People are just astounded," says Art Professor Sherri McElroy. "I sat in my office
for an evening last week and as I peered out my window, I saw every single person
stop and look at the light show and the sculpture," she says. "We used to be the dark
corner of campus and now we are the beacon."
"Before it was just like every other building," says Riley Blindt '13, one of several
art majors who helped with the sculpture's assembly last fall. "Now it's got something
to intrigue anyone who is walking around the Quad."
The rotunda's rave reviews are welcomed by B. Charles "Chuck" Ames '50 and his wife,
Joyce "Jay" Eichhorn Ames '49. Their gift funded the rotunda's construction. "There
is so much creativity and beauty in the work of those in the School of Art," says
Jay, "and we wanted the exterior of the building to reflect that. We want visitors
to know, with one look, that this is the art building."
Flo Armstrong '43 (above) provided funding for
the sculpture with a gift made in her name and
that of her late husband, Vic.
Trustee emeritus Flora Harris Armstrong '43 provided funds for the rotunda's 20-foot-high
sculpture, which can be seen from every corner of the Quad. It was designed by Arizona
artist Lyle London, whose work appears in numerous public and private collections
throughout the world. CSO Architects and consultant R. Paul Bradley designed the surrounding
Opened in 1973, the art building, part of the Alice Millar Center for the Arts, houses
classrooms and studios for painting, printmaking, photography, ceramics, graphics
and other artistic ambitions. It is also home to the University's Merwin and Wakeley
In 1998, Chuck and Jay made a $2-million scholarship commitment to the School of Art,
which was renamed The Joyce Eichhorn Ames School of Art in her honor. They later provided
a challenge-gift that led to construction of The Ames Library, which opened in 2002.
At the launch of the University's Transforming Lives: The Campaign for Illinois Wesleyan in 2009, the couple provided $25 million for the Wesleyan Fund and faculty endowments,
the largest gift in University history.
Their latest Transforming Lives gift funded not just the new rotunda, but also renovations throughout the art building's
first floor. An expanded lobby space outside the Merwin and Wakeley galleries will
host gatherings, openings and artists' receptions. Four instructional areas were remodeled
into three more spacious studios for students.
In explaining her desire to see the art building improved, Jay Ames recalls one of
her own college experiences. She was one of a group of students invited every Friday
afternoon to the home of Kenneth Loomis, then chairman of the School of Art. "Every
picture, chair or pillow was in the right place, and every color blended. ... I wanted
to study it so that I could try to have a house like that someday. That is what I
have spent a good part of my life doing: trying to make beautiful surroundings for
my family and friends" — and, most lately, for the School of Art.
"We've been very lucky that we have the funds to do things that are our dreams," Jay
reflects. "Some people would rather have a yacht. We would rather have something beautiful
on that campus that we helped bring about."
The 'wow' factor
Though its purpose is to highlight the School of Arts, the new rotunda and its sculpture
have something to fire every IWU students' imagination.
Biology majors can contemplate how the sculpture's three-dimensional spiral form is
inspired by the helix-structure of the DNA molecule. Students of physics can marvel
at the piece's special glass, which divides the light spectrum, transmitting one color
while reflecting its opposite.
Artist Lyle London (above) relied on computer technology
to complete the sculpture's complex design.
According to the artist who created it, the sculpture represents artistic expression
made possible by breakthroughs in technology.
"I've gotten away from hand-crafting sculpture models and sculpture itself and more
into the technology of computer-aided design," says artist Lyle London, who oversaw
the sculpture's assembly this past fall. "This work for Illinois Wesleyan is the first
really large piece that I will have created entirely on the computer."
The work is an abstraction, taking the form of three interwoven, tapering helices.
Once the complex design was completed and approved, a team of workers at London's
Tempe, Ariz., studio welded the stainless-steel frame and prepared the diachronic-coated
glass. London says, "This piece has 2,000 man-hours in it — a lot of time, all skilled
"It presents a real engineering challenge," says London, "not only to make but to
put in position and keep in a suspended state in that rotunda." Hung by a one-eight-inch,
stainless-steel aircraft cable, the sculpture appears to float inside the rotunda.
Normally, London is asked to create sculptures to fit space that is already constructed.
For this project, he says, both the rotunda and sculpture were designed to complement
each other. For example, at London's request, low-iron glass in the rotunda windows
was installed to provide better transparency and a more vivid viewing experience.
Lighting gives the sculpture an extra "wow" factor. By itself, the play of natural
daytime light against the diachronic glass shifts color with the viewer's movements.
At night, a computerized light system can be programmed to create "hundreds of different
scenes, or color combinations, that can last up to an hour and constantly change,"
"We're really using stage light, so whatever you see in a rock concert, we can do
on this sculpture. So it can go from way over the top — with shimmering, pulsating,
chasing effects. Anything that you can bring to mind at a disco or a music concert
setting can be programmed into these lights. But more subtle effects are possible,
too — very slow color changes and very slow intensity changes in the illumination."
Riley Blindt '13 glues into place one of the sculpture's special reflective glass
panels. Several art students assisted in the sculpture's assembly.
London is pleased that the light system can be reprogrammed by fine art and theatre
arts students. "This presents an opportunity for them because the system holds potential
to create way more than I will ever do with the initial program. They can take it
over and experiment with it. In that way, the sculpture itself will be in constant
state of evolution."
For art student Riley Blindt and her classmates, the sculpture and surrounding rotunda
provide not just daily inspiration, but a glimpse into the future as well.
"It's definitely making me think of all the different possibilities that I have for
when I graduate, which is coming up soon," says Blindt.
"We stand out now," adds Blindt, a trace of pride in her smile. "Before it was easy
to pass us by as the School of Art. The new entrance is now a way to draw people in
and get them interested in what we're doing. And they'll want to come in and look
at it and then come look at the galleries, too, because we have a lot of cool stuff
going on in here."
To visit the School of Art's website, click here.