Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The winding line of towering blue poles that appeared on Sharples lawn this past semester has been an object of curiosity all year. The poles won’t be bare for much longer – they are actually the skeleton of artist Stacy Levy’s Crum Creek Meander, an installation that is gradually coming together in celebration of Swarthmore’s Sesquicentennial year. The installation will accompany an exhibition of Levy’s work in the List Gallery, which will open on March 5th with a lecture by the artist.
The installation, as implied by its name, attempts to capture the essence of the flow of water and the winding form of the Crum Creek at the heart of campus. The structure is 250 feet long and will consist of strips of both clear and black vinyl hanging from a metal frame all along the installation. These vinyl strips will give shape to the wind as they move freely.
Students are welcome to volunteer to help with Levy’s project. One opportunity will take place in roughly two weeks, when students will be able to help with the final installation of the piece. In late February and early March, students will also be able to help prepare for Levy’s List Gallery exhibition. Interested student volunteers are encouraged to email Levy directly at email@example.com.
This week, The Daily Gazette sat down with Levy to discuss the inspiration and process behind the creation of the Meander.
The Daily Gazette: Could you talk about what inspired the design for the Meander?
Stacy Levy: Well you guys on this incredibly beautiful campus have a lovely stream that goes through it, but it’s sort of invisible to the campus, and oftentimes my work is about finding the water, or traces of the water, and making them apparent to the people who are just passing through. […] You have this incredible Parrish lawn, the whole way that the campus is a walk – the campus is really about walking between the buildings. What’s beautiful about the campus is truly the landscape.
So I wanted to bring a presence of the Crum Creek up into the pedestrian landscape, of a student’s every day. And I wanted to […] depict it with another material that may be not at all like water, but using it in a different way that turns it into a kind of liquid that you wouldn’t have thought of as liquid. I think there are certain materials in this world that deserve to be looked at again in totally different ways, and this vinyl that I’ve been using […] is this very odd clear stuff that we see hanging in industrial situations all the time. But you never see it as this sort of artful thing. I’ve looked at it and I’ve been very entranced by the motion of it, and how it’s transparent, but it alters how you look through it. It’s sort of like antique glass, where the world is a little wavery as you look through it. And I thought it would be so interesting to create a kind of curtain of this stuff which is dry but acts like it’s water. And it’s also clear the way water is transparent, but not totally transparent, and it has a kind of suppleness that is very liquid. So I wanted to bring liquidity in with a hard material, or a solid material. I thought I’d bring the shape of the meandering stream […] – so you’re walking down a pathway that’s straight with a hard edge, and then there’s this curving thing that’s happening, that you get to witness and even get to walk through. […]
And all this vinyl that I’m using, it’s called weather stripping, it’s all about making these transitions between cold places and hot places, or clean places and dirty places, so that if you have an industrial place that has, say, a freezer, and you want to be able to drive through it with a forklift with a pallet filled with frozen fish, you go through these curtains and they kind of fall back and make an airlock. And I love the idea of the two sides of things, it sort of reminds me of two sides of a stream, like if you’re on one end of a bank and you can’t swim, or you don’t have a boat, and it’s too deep, and you can’t get across, but sometimes you can break through. So this two-sidedness was very interesting to me too […] – it sort of seems like a great metaphor for college. You start and break through all of this knowledge and hopefully get out the other side.
DG: Have there been any other challenges to the process?
SL: […] I’ve never a done a project with this material before, so new material for me, and I’ve really loved it. I’ve been watching this [weather] stripping for a long time thinking, “That needs to be a piece.” It’s dry water quality. But I haven’t worked with it before […] We’ve been testing out all sorts of different fasteners, different methods of fastening it, and just watching it move in the wind and seeing how it is affected by the cold, and how it’s affected by time. So I’ve been on a long test period, but I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen with it.
But that’s kind of interesting about art, you put things out there and you see where it goes. Because if it was all figured out, it would sort of lose a certain something. It would lose a spirit, or breath to it. I’m watching it, while you guys are seeing it, so it’s new to me also, not as new to me as it is to you, but my audience and I are sort of in the same view. So it’s out there, not as an experiment, it’s been tested, but I haven’t seen it when there’s 250 feet of it.
DG: Why was water in particular important to you?
SL: I’m very addicted to water. I just really think it’s a very cool substance. I also grew up on a tributary of the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. And I used to play in what I thought was this wonderful stream, and I always wondered why after a storm it smelled particularly sewery. And I didn’t realize it was a run-off, directly draining a huge street of its rainwater. And then in Philadelphia, whenever the storm drains become full, it meets the sewer part of the storm drain because they’re combined. It’s a combined sewer system, which many old towns have, because it’s a very good idea, it’s very effective utilization of making one trench in the ground. But it’s problematic when too much water falls on it.
So I realized I was playing in a combined sewer, and I thought it was a stream – but that was my urban stream. So I think that kind of marked me – I’ve been interested in where the water goes in the city, where it flows in the suburbs too, how you will change those flows, and why we don’t know about water. It stops raining, and you just stop thinking about it. It goes in the ground, we think, but most water isn’t going into the ground. It’s going into pipes and it’s being piped somewhere, and we have a whole infrastructure to take rainwater out of the sky once it falls, and to move it from the site, and normally it’s dumped directly into our urban streams like the Crum Creek. And the Crum Creek has suffered a tremendous amount of damage to its banks because of these massive amounts of rainwater right after a rainstorm. […]So I’m interested in the idea of urban rain and the ecology of rain falling in a hardscape and where it goes and how it gets handled.
DG: I’ve noticed a lot of your work has an engineering aspect to it.
SL: And next time you’re flying over Pennsylvania, when you look down and you see that kind of silvery ribbon of streams, you’ll know it better, and you’ll feel a little bit more intimacy with the form. It may bring people into wanting to preserve their water more, they’ll think about it a little bit more, beneath their perpendicular roads, they’ll think about those meandering forms underneath our infrastructure that are there and actually need our attention. I guess that’s sort of my mission, to bring the urban streams into people’s minds and into their imagination.
Video and featured image by Martin Froger-Silva ’16.