Sculpture envisions gathering place on new terrace

FOCUS: Sculpture Envisions Gathering Place on New Terrace

Minneapolis-based artist Randy Walker has been commissioned to design and install a permanent outdoor sculpture on the new terrace on the north side of the UW-Madison Education Building, as part of the renovation and addition project. Walker discusses his work, Proximal Ring, with Campus Connections.

Question: How would you describe this work? 
Randy Walker: This work will be a gathering space in the landscape. The overall form of the sculpture will be a circle located at the northeast corner of the new elevated terrace of the Education Building.

A sculpture outside the education buildingThis circular space will be defined by a concrete and limestone bench and aluminum poles of varying heights placed along the perimeter. The circular plan, approximately 20 feet in diameter, will be open to allow access from the surrounding plaza on its western edge.

Overhead, an intricate network of stainless steel cables will be suspended from the aluminum poles. The visibility of cables will vary according to lighting conditions.

The sculpture is visually permeable in all directions. This transparency follows the landscape concept for the entire plaza, connecting views of Lake Mendota and the Muir Woods to the Education Building.

Although the sculpture will be made from contemporary materials, it will have a primitive quality. The aluminum poles will have a slightly haphazard appearance. The sculpture might look as if it were constructed by a small group of people marking a sacred place.

Q: What inspired your proposal for this site? 
Walker: In conceiving this piece, I sought to express some inherent quality of education in general, and this School of Education in particular. While there are many objects and tools that signify and are associated with education, I became most fascinated by the interactive process of teaching and learning itself.

Learning and teaching take place in both mental and physical space between teachers and students, in both formal and informal settings. It seemed natural that the sculpture should be a physical space where interaction could happen.

To arrive at a physical form that expressed interaction visually, I researched ways that interactions are represented. I became fascinated with diagrams that illustrated interaction among all types of things: people, proteins, yeasts, former Enron executives, etc. These diagrams are made up of points and lines and form beautiful, gauze-like webs. Some of them can become quite complex visually. I wondered what an interaction diagram might look like extruded into three dimensions.

In researching the history of this site in particular, I was struck by the so-called council rings inspired by the designs of landscape architect Jens Jensen in the 1930s. These were limestone circles that functioned as informal gathering spaces or outdoor classrooms. A council ring still stands near the Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall.

To construct a circular stone bench in the woods seems quite profound to me. Its circular form lends itself to interaction among groups of people. Rather than rows of seating behind a single lectern, the council rings encourage discussion among participants. It is also a simple, hand-crafted way of engaging native landscape materials.

Q: What's your thinking behind the name, Proximal Ring? 
Walker: As I researched education theory, I became interested in Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development,which describes a distance between an actual developmental level as determined by what an individual can learn independently and a potential developmental level that is determined by that individual's collaboration with peers.

Individuals within the sculpture will be in close proximity to each other, just as the elements of the sculpture are gathered together. Perhaps within the space of the sculpture, this abstract distance of learning potentials will also be manifest. The title, Proximal Ring, is also an allusion to the council rings described above.

Q: How do you think it will complement the building? A sculpture outside the education building
Walker: My hope is that the sculpture will create a delicate visual point of interest. The new east wing of the building responds to the massing, window composition and horizontal datum lines of the existing building without imitating it. This contemporary response by the architects was inspiring to me in re-interpreting the traditional council rings artistically.

By its tilting, irregularly-spaced poles the sculpture will form a counterpoint to the classical symmetry of both wings. The solidity of eastern wing of the new addition will complement the informal, dance-like quality of the poles and suspended cable. The sculpture's limestone bench will be made from the same variety of limestone used on the exteriors of both the original and new Education Building.

Q: How does this fit into your body of work? 
Walker: Many of my artistic explorations have centered on using fibrous materials to define three-dimensional space. The majority of my work relies on found objects or architectural spaces to act as frameworks or looms upon which I make my fiber connections by wrapping, weaving, or otherwise attaching.

In small pieces, I used sewing thread. Because I work with visually non-massive materials, my work is as much about the spaces I am filling as it is the strands that traverse the space. Light and context are part of the work.

In many of my public projects, I am interested in creating spaces that are entered, seen through, walked around, etc. I do not see myself as a creator of solid objects. Proximal Ring is a continuation of this study.

Q: How is it different? 
Walker: Instead of using a found object or architectural element to weave, I am designing the framework itself. Further, this framework is a three-dimensional interpretation of a two-dimensional diagram.

Because my work must always literally respond to some kind of structural framework, I am very excited by the possibility of using found concepts, such as the interaction diagrams that inspired Proximal Ring.

Whatever its eventual conceptual content, there is also a pragmatic aspect to my work in that I must be able to somehow weave it. To look at an abstract concept or diagram and imagine how it might literally be woven and how I might make those connections is very challenging. This project has pushed me to a new level in that regard.

Q: How would you like the community to engage with this work? 
Walker: Ultimately, I hope that the sculpture is a place of interaction among students and faculty. While the sculpture's form is derived from historic and conceptual elements which may in themselves generate discussion, these are incidental to the many discussions that could take place within this loosely-delineated space.

I am excited to see just how the space is used over time. I could imagine a small seminar meeting in the sculpture on a nice day, or two students discussing a topic of interest. Perhaps the sculpture will be a meeting spot, a marker on the campus. Rather than telling a clear, complete story, I have tried to leave an open framework to be completed by others.

To see more of Randy Walker’s work, visit


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