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Cracking the Selvage Code

Cracking the Selvage Code
To see – to really see – Nancy Selvage's ceramic mural of the Ashuelot River, you have to get into the flow.

Nancy Selvage's ceramic mural photo by Mark Corliss
Section photos

Nancy Selvage's ceramic mural photo by Mark Corliss First visit
I walk past the Science Building and admire the mural without really seeing it. From Appian Way, through the large windows, I see curves and color, which I know represent the path of the Ashuelot River as it snakes through campus and south to the covered bridge at Sawyer's Crossing Road in Swanzey. The mural, a sculpture in fired clay created by Nancy Selvage, a well-known potter who teaches at Harvard, was commissioned to be the finishing touch on the new Science Building. The whole idea is cool, very classy, I think.

Inside the building, students pass the mural on their way to class, idly trailing their fingers over the surface. It is nearly impossible not to touch it – smooth glazed tiles for water, rough textures for the riverbanks, sensual curves and dips and crevices. Colors run into each other, from cool whites and blues into brown, orange, red – hot colors – shading down into rich yellows and then to green, the color of life. I watch as young children come into the building and make a beeline for the mural, putting their faces and arms right up against it and staring intently at the forms incised in the clay. There are dragonflies and shells, tools, scientific formulas, words, bubbles, symbols. What do they mean? The children don't need to know. They respond to the sheer physicality of this expansive work of art.

There are dragonflies and shells, tools, scientific formulas, words, bubbles, symbols. What do they mean? Second visit
Just as a river finds its own path to the sea, digging down into soft soil and tumbling heedlessly over rocks, I try to carve out an understanding of the mural. As a onetime English major, I ought to know a metaphor when I see one, but there is mystery in the myriad details, in the organization. On my next visit, I study the mural up close. I see blood cells, fossils, photographs, prisms, strange implements embedded in the clay. The mural seems futuristic and ancient, playful and academic. Certainly, I think, a river – whether the Ashuelot or the Amazon – provides a perfect framework for exploring the scientific ideas of flow and dynamic change, principles central to all sciences and to life itself.

I start to get a feeling for the complexity, the life beneath the surface. I can't take personal credit for this insight. I call the artist and ask her what it all means.

Artist Nancy Selvage and her team, photographed during the mural installation last spring, used the dynamic shape of the Ashuelot River to capture objects and symbols from the world of science.Photo by Al Karevy ‘79. Nancy Selvage directs the Ceramics Program at Harvard University; she holds a master's degree in sculpture from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is known for her exhibitions and installations that respond to a specific context. Much of her childhood was spent in Maine. In her freshman year in a premed program at Wellesley College, she says she was "seduced by slides in the dark," an art history course. She took more art history and soon discovered that she would rather create art than study its past. She fell in love with the three-dimensional quality of clay and has worked at the top of her profession for 30 years. At Keene State, her idea for a ceramic mural of the Ashuelot River was one of 120 proposals from artists.

"I got the Request for Proposal from the College," she recalls, "and it said the work should 'evoke, dramatize, or resonate with' scientific themes connected to the nine science programs that share the building. I knew I couldn't cover the whole wall but could use a shape to contain the work. Maps are a common theme in my work. As I brainstormed with friends and colleagues on this project, I thought of a map of the river, and also a border that would be mathematical or technical. The river has an incredible dynamic shape, so suggestive of science, from the microscopic to almost cosmic. It's so exciting, and it gave me energy to do the proposal. I knew I needed different surfaces, glazes to indicate water, matte for the land. The banks hold impressions of things we can study in the river, as well as tools, both simple and imaginary."

R1 shows the life and death of a pion and a muon, tiny charged particles first seen in cosmic rays. R2 shows a Feynman diagram, named for the famous physicist. The committee loved her idea of using a specific Keene location and experimenting with color and glazes. They hired her in June 2004, and she and her team – Warren Mather (her husband and also a ceramic artist), Kim Lenz, and Nate Sherman – got to work.

"Usually the design process works in the direction of simplification," Nancy says, "but in this case it got more complicated as I put more things into the river bank. I worried that too much was going on, but people's enthusiasm kept me going." She consulted with faculty from the various sciences, some of whom (especially the geologists) donated small artifacts and tools to incorporate. Warren Mather has worked for years at using photo silk-screens with ceramics, and he helped her with the technology. She figured out the color progressions, screens, and other details on her computer.

Photo by Al Karevy '79 This spring, Nancy and her colleagues finished installing the mural, painstakingly cementing the intricate tiles to the wall under the curious gaze of passersby. Then Nancy went home to work on a document to identify the elements in the mural and give photo credits and other sources for the visual items she chose to depict. When this elaborate document is complete, it will be a key to the entire mural, something the College can put on the web or on an interactive screen near the mural itself, for those who really get into the flow and want to know what the artist was thinking.

Third visit
Nancy Selvage's ceramic mural photo by Mark CorlissI have a partial draft of the key, and I am starting to crack the code. Each image in the mural has a letter and number in the document. "R" is for "river," and R1 is the very first element an observer will see, starting from the left side of the mural. R1 shows the life and death of a pion and a muon, tiny charged particles first seen in cosmic rays. R2 shows a Feynman diagram, named for the famous physicist. The "B" items are on the "bank," and I see why Nancy included a plumb bob (B7) – it is a tool that demonstrates gravitational pull. I figure out that "T" is for "tributary" and "P" for "pool," and I drift along beside the mural, discovering depictions of microbial diversity (T4) and human stem cells (P2). This is a whirlwind trip through biology and physics and all of the sciences taught in this beautiful building with its 32 new labs. Right now I'm not appreciating the mural in quite the same visceral way as the youngsters did who literally embraced it, but I love the feeling of being caught in the web of science, a web woven by an artist.

I have a final question for Nancy. I wonder if there is a certain chronology or sequence to the items that I don't perceive. She e-mails me back the next day: "When I chose textures on the bank, I was thinking about a progression from geological – with simple life forms – to more complex life forms in the river. There was also a progression from elementary particles – basic physics, chemistry, simple life forms – to more complex forms, with a concentration of water-related images in the blue zone, blood-cell-related images in the red zone, sun-related images in the yellow zone, plant-related images in the green zone."

Nancy Selvage's ceramic mural photo by Mark Corliss I thank her, and a day later I get another note: "P.S. The green area is green because that part of the river looks so floral. The red part is red because that tributary looks so animal-like, and the orange-yellow part is orange yellow because that tributary looks so flame-like." I get a final image in my mind of the mural as a scientific construct brought to life by the imagination and vision of an artist, a river transformed into a metaphor for science. It is there for all of us to see, to touch, and perhaps to understand.

Editor's note: "Ashuelot River Flow" can be seen anytime the Science Center is open. The key to the mural can be accessed by clicking on the link below. It will be updated until it is complete. When funds become available, the College hopes to install an interactive screen near the mural so that visitors can look up any details they are curious about.

Sections of Mark Corliss photo of "Ashuelot River Flow"

Mural Key to "Ashuelot River Flow"
  in Adobe® Portable Document Format (PDF)
  For help downloading, go to:   

Susan Peery is associate editor of Keene State Today.

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Nancy Selvage
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