Breathe With Me: A Wandering Sculpture Trail
One of the things that UVA sculpture professor Bill Bennett loves most about teaching introductory level sculpture students is that, in his words, “they don’t know what they can’t do, so they do it!”
Bennett, who has been teaching at UVA for four decades, recently put that theory to the test with one of his most ambitious projects to date – a partnership with the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA to create Breathe With Me: A Wandering Sculpture Trail, located on the museum’s gorgeous three-acre backyard.
Built around the concept of mindfulness, the project was a COVID-era dream come true for all involved. “We have been looking out at this empty backyard for more than a year now,” said Lauren Maupin, Manager of Education and Programs at Kluge-Ruhe, noting that it had previously been the site of highly successful art and music events that drew hundreds from throughout the community to the museum’s picturesque mountaintop home. “As an art museum, we should be filled with people and art. Given the situation with COVID right now, our museum visitors can only visit in small parties of 8 or less. They have the place to themselves, which is wonderful in a way, but we thought, what if we could extend the experience to the outdoors in a way we simply cannot do with large events right now?”
She knew just where to look for a partner. For many years, whenever they have a visiting Indigenous Australian artist who is a sculptor, Kluge-Ruhe has facilitated opportunities for the artist to teach and engage with Bill Bennet and his UVA sculpture classes, and students have then responded to that work with their own. “In all of our past partnerships, I’ve always found Bill’s students to be absolutely astounding in their creativity and ambition,” Maupin said, “and I found myself thinking that more people should be able to see their work. This was a great way to get them that well-deserved visibility.”
Bill determined that the exhibition would be a competitive outdoor sculpture exhibition and that Lauren would join Kluge-Ruhe Director Margo Smith and Museum Educator Fenella Belle as judges. Maupin and Belle wanted to widen the scope of the exhibition to incorporate contemplative practices or, more specifically, dadirri. Dadirri is a concept developed by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, an Aboriginal woman from the Nauiyu community in northern Australia, that describes an experience of breathing, listening deeply, and connecting with the outdoors. This theme was strengthened by another partnership, this time with UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, where students of Professor Jayme Siet’s Mindfulness and Nature class wrote reflective prompts for visitors to explore while discovering the trail’s 13 works.
Bennett wasted no time in getting his students started, introducing them to the project on their first day of class in February and holding their next class at Kluge-Ruhe to better understand the site and develop ideas. On the day before a scheduled final review, some of the works stood near completion, while others still required a good deal of conceptualizing. “You have to understand students,” Bennett said. “They spend about 1/5 of their time being sculptors. They have lots of deadlines and meet some of those by staying up all night the night before. You can’t really do that here.”
As we walked along, we came upon a student who had literally dug herself a big hole. Two, to be exact. Isabella Whitfield is a fifth-year student in Bennett’s studio, which makes her an anomaly in a project that mainly features second and third-year sculpture students. She was standing in one of a pair of 4-foot-deep grave-like holes with pavers creating stairs back to the surface. The project, she said, was a perfect fit. “I have wanted to do this exact project for a long time now, but obviously, there are not a lot of places where you can dig four-foot holes. This kind of project gave all of us the opportunity to dream big.” The piece allowed her to explore the idea of active removal and ways to use absence to form presence. Whitfield hopes that people will use the stairs to enter the work. Virginia red clay intermingled from each hole rests nearby, a reminder of the effort involved and a central part of the relationship between presence and absence. A small fence encircles the piece, with poetry on each post.
“When Isabella first mentioned the idea to me,” Bennett said. “I thought, ‘Oh great, digging itself is a poetic act.’” The comment drew a smile from Whitfield, who, soaked in sweat from an unusually warm early May morning, said, “There have been times where I didn’t know if I had enough poetry in me to finish this project.” When asked how long she had been digging, Whitfield said, “I haven’t been keeping track, but I have listened to the entire audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath, if that is any indication.”
Next on the trail was Bennett’s own work. He and Ed Miller, who works both in Bennett’s sculpture studio and as Visitor Services Specialist at Kluge-Ruhe, each have their own pieces on the trail. Miller’s piece is a buffalo rising from the ground and was inspired by research that revealed bison were native to Virginia.
As we walked up the hill, Bennett explained that the placement of his piece at the top of a hillside was intentional, offering a moment of discovery in a work that seems to rise from the ground. The piece is entitled Omphalos Oculus. Omphalos are rounded stones that, in Greek mythology, represent the navel of the world. The piece is situated on a mound of dirt intentionally created to resemble a belly. As you get closer, the sculpture invites you to walk around it, where you discover a small staircase inviting the viewer to climb, lean over and look inside. Unveiled within is a vision of the night sky, buried in the earth. Nearby, at the front of the sculpture, a plume of fiber optic cables captures the light and channels it inside the darkness of the earth. “I wanted to invert the notion that the sky is ‘up there,’” Bennett said. “The sky is absolutely everywhere.”
While each artist brought different inspirations to the project, there is clearly a shared appreciation and respect for the environment that is seen throughout. Many of the sculptors were inspired by the natural surroundings, including incorporating the trees on the property. Fourth-year Calvin Tilson has created Incrementum, a black rim that encircles one of those trees and is supported by flying buttresses resembling elephant legs. “It is,” Bennett said, “partly animal, partly architecture, and mainly an homage to the tree.” A sculpture by Calista Rieken depicts a family of life-size wolves made of plaster diamond mesh wire and covered with bark that emerges straight out of the tree’s trunk. “It’s a fascinating way to show the interconnection and interdependency between the plant and animal worlds,” Maupin said.
The playlist of prompts, Maupin said, is designed to get people to slow down in between or at a sculpture and to truly connect with the piece as well as its beautiful natural surroundings. “I really love the way this has come together,” she said. “Visitors can enter, exit, sit within, peer into, feel and listen to these artworks. The activities in the reflective prompts foster a deeper connection to the place, as does the opportunity to carry one of the walking sticks made by Bill’s first-semester sculpture students. What makes me really happy is that so often a museum is a passive experience, and this is such a wonderful way of activating it.”