By Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78
Member, Roanoke College Board of Trustees
What do you do with a massive, rusting (and often misunderstood) site-specific sculpture in desperate need of repair that sits in a prominent place on the back quad of your campus? Do you repair it, or remove it and place it somewhere in deep storage? That was the question facing the Roanoke College Trustees last year when we considered the fate of The Solar Wind, created by American sculptor Alice Aycock.
At first, the answer wasn't simple. After years of exposure to wind, rain and snow, the work was rusty and broken, and despite attempts over the years to repaint and fix it, significant elements of the sculpture no longer existed, much less functioned. In recent years, students would express negative opinions about The Solar Wind in the The Brackety-Ack. And they were not alone. Even a close friend once confessed, "I just don't like it."
Fortunately, I have been immersed in the contemporary and cutting edge art world since my graduation from Roanoke College in the late 1970s, and such declarations do not deter me. I understand firsthand the diverse range of the aesthetic taste of the viewing audience. In response I would stress that liking the sculpture was not the issue; rather, understanding and respecting the artwork was. And for the Roanoke College community to better understand The Solar Wind, it became clear to me that several things needed to take place.
First, we needed to have better signage by the sculpture identifying Solar Wind to the general public. How could we expect people to embrace the work if they had no idea what they were looking at? I suggested that descriptions of The Solar Wind (and other artwork in the College's permanent collection) should appear on our website. Next, I proposed that articles, like this one, should appear in the college magazine and The Brackety-Ack from time to time to remind the community about the sculpture and its artist, Alice Aycock. And lastly, we needed to restore The Solar Wind to its original splendor, a process that would require both time as well as a significant financial investment.
As a member of the Board of Trustees' Art Committee, the task of introducing the work of Alice Aycock to my fellow Trustees fell into my lap. I needed their approval to move forward with The Solar Wind's restoration. In the process of learning more about Aycock's work, my appreciation of the sculpture deepened. I quickly realized that the College was blessed with an overlooked jewel, one that was not only a landmark work for the globally acclaimed and highly influential artist, but a key piece in our permanent collection.
Alice Aycock's art is heavily influenced by her past. Her family's business specialized in erecting massive turbine generators for the power industry. The blades of these turbines left a lasting impression on the artist, and in fact, a series of blades is one of the dominant features in The Solar Wind. Also known for her theatrical use of architecture, Aycock encourages the public to mix logic with imagination when viewing her work. In The Solar Wind, she visually explores issues of technology and its connection to history - and what better place for the sculpture to sit than poised between the science complex and the buildings holding classes in history and language?
Happily, the Board voted unanimously to restore The Solar Wind. It once again sits gleaming on its perch in the back quad tickling the minds of today's students. Upon receiving this news, Aycock wrote the following e-mail which I shared with my fellow Trustees:
"I just want you to know how happy this makes me. I think it is one of my favorite works and has so many elements that are important in my work. I want you to know how much I appreciate your support. So many of my early pieces were not saved for one reason or another so this really matters to me."
Unlike other universities and schools in recent news, the decision by Roanoke College's Board to restore The Solar Wind proves that we view art as more than a just commodity or asset; we view art as an idea- and one worth protecting and preserving even if it means investing a considerable amount of money to do so. Not only did we do the right thing by restoring this artwork, we did a wonderful thing. And in doing so, Roanoke College's reputation within the contemporary art world - and especially with living artists - has grown considerably stronger.
Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo is president and director of The Dorothea L. Leonhardt Foundation, Inc. in New York City. She also serves on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City where she is a trustee and secretary. In addition, she is a board member of Creative Time and HELP USA in New York City, and the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.