Public Art at Swarthmore

On the first Sunday of September, on a day when not even the sun wanted to shine, we (Hannah Stern Pait ’23 and Jacob Weitzner ’22) set out on what became a life-changing journey through campus. After a quick stop at Hobbs, we started our tour of campus outdoor art. “Wait, there’s public art around here?” asked Sidhika Tripathee ’22, when asked her opinion of public art at Swat. This seemed to be a common theme in all our conversations. 

The first sculpture we visited was “Slide Rock,” hidden in the trees between Alice Paul and the train station. The sculpture is made of red steel rectangles sticking up from the ground at different angles. A medium-sized boulder rests at the bottom of one of the pieces of steel. We quickly noticed that this sculpture was not maintained. Moss covered the steel and stone, and the sculpture’s base was littered with dead leaves. The paint was fading in multiple spots, and some people had signed their names. 

“Slide Rock” by David Stromeyer, photograph by Laurence Kesterson via swarthmore.edu

Hidden by a grove of river birch trees, this is a great spot for quiet reflection. It’s also an ideal spot to wait for the train if you get to the station too early, or if you have to wait another hour for the next one because you missed the SEPTA. 

However, the beauty of the location is dulled by the sculpture itself. The decay of the sculpture juxtaposed with the fact that it will never fall down because of the stable structure felt symbolic to Hannah’s college experience, but that wasn’t enough to redeem it. The big question we pondered was, “Did the rock slide down or was it placed at the bottom?” Overall, Jacob gave this sculpture a 2/5.

Next we stopped by “Red Steelroot,” the red steelroot-like sculpture in AP courtyard. There we met the first of many interviewees. Louie ’23, a junior who is an AP fanatic, said, “Pretty good. 7/10.” Hannah, who does not have the same personal attachment to AP, called the sculpture “Scary. Looks like veins. 2/10.” 

“Red Steelroot” by Steve Tobin, photograph by Laurence Kesterson via swarthmore.edu

Jacob pointed out to us all of the sculpture’s resemblance to mangrove tree roots. (If you have never looked up mangrove trees, you should. They are really cool plants.)

As we walked away from AP, we met up with some more seniors and asked about their opinions on public art on campus. “We need more public art and to be open to unsolicited art like graffiti,” said one senior under the name of Gabriel.

The third sculpture was “Sappho” outside of Sharples. This sculpture was made in 1967! It’s a dark metal sculpture of a figure lounging. The face is a large hole that you can see all the way into, and the surface is rough with uneven edges. This is a good sculpture with good texture, and it has a cool spot on a bed of vines. Rushil ’24 said it was “pretty chill,” and that he notices it every time he enters Sharples. Charlie ’24 pointed out that “it looks like a monk taking a nap.” This sculpture felt pretty dark, which is weird for the location outside of Sharples.

“Sappho” by Alekos Kyriakos, Photograph by Martin Tomlinson

Next, we checked out “Memorial Sculpture,” the metal globe between Sharples and the IC. We immediately noticed how hidden it was — we had to sneak through the fence near Sharples to access it. We recommend the reader look up close and knock on it with a knuckle to hear the resonant sound it makes. It looked like it was glowing — reader, just imagine how cool it would look on a sunny day. We really loved this piece. It’s so beautiful and interesting to look at and feels very magical. We stopped first years Sarah and Isa on their walk along the path in front of Wharton. When asked about the sculpture, they said, “If it was on my way I’d notice it.” So true.

At this point, we began to waver a bit (Hannah did at least), but when we got to Wharton we re-energized. In front of Wharton there was a stone sculpture of a lion surrounded by bamboo plants. On the ground in front of the sculpture was a metal plaque that shared some history about Chinese soldiers at Swarthmore College. Jacob said, “Pretty good. The sculpture is really well placed, great art in context. Recommend as a hang-out spot.” Keep an eye out for Hannah and Jacob hanging out there in the future.

Our next piece of art was the net between Danawell and Wharton. It had a plaque next to it with the quote, “Life is too short to not have fun.” While a beautiful area, it was a bit disappointing; we tried sitting on it but failed. Jacob said, “Life is too short to not have fun. The question is, does anyone have fun on this?”

On our walk to Underhill for our second-to-last sculpture of our art tour, we met Tate, a high school senior visiting from Nashville. Tate said about “Garnet,” the Underhill sculpture, “this is the kind of sculpture that looks like construction material that was stuck together then painted over. It doesn’t make me feel anything, not like other art does.” What a wise statement. Hannah and Jacob, less wisely, said, “It’s ugly. We don’t know what brutalism is, but this looks brutal.” Jacob gave this sculpture a 2/5, but Hannah gave it a 1/5 in context because of its location. It’s on a slab of concrete and blocks part of the windows to the Lang Music building.

“Garnet” by Robert Murray, photograph by Laurence Kesterson via swarthmore.edu

The last piece we visited was the Calder sculpture, “Back from Rio.” Emmeline ’22 shared her perspective as an art student. She finds the Calder to be underappreciated — Calder is a very famous artist and it is so special that we have one of his sculptures in front of everyone’s favorite study spot, Sci Commons. She said she thinks that the art department does a good job of encouraging students to appreciate the art on campus and the buildings, and that the school is generally willing to display student art but should offer more encouragement and resources to students to make art.

“Back from Rio” by Alexander Calder, photograph by Laurence Kesterson via swarthmore.edu

An interesting fact about Calder is that Hannah’s grandfather, Henrique Pait, was an architect/artist who was a huge fan of Calder and made mobiles as well. Those of you who have been in Hannah’s dining room at home might have seen the red mobile in the corner by the window, which was made by her grandfather.

This last interview concluded our journey around outdoor art on campus. Stay tuned for future reporting from Hannah and Jacob, including a deep dive into the mystery of where the Calder sculpture goes in the winter.

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