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Installation in the Eyring Science Center bridges Art and Geology

Detail of an installation in the Eyring Science Center, created by Professor Collin Bradford and his 3D Sculpture students.

With the help of his 3D Sculpture classes, Professor Collin Bradford collaborated with the Geology Department to create a unique work of art.

Visitors to the Eyring Science Center on BYU Campus are greeted with many objects of curiosity. The building’s foyer features prehistoric skeletons and a prominent Foucault’s Pendulum, and each of its diverging wings is decorated with large glass display cases full of geological samples. This September, something new can be seen alongside the dinosaurs, facing the western windows on the atrium’s second floor: a uniquely commissioned work of art made by Professor Collin Bradford, alongside students from his Digital 3D Sculpture course.

The project began with a correspondence between Professor Bradford and the Geology Department. In Winter semester of 2022, he received an email with an opportunity for students to create some public art in the Eyring Center. A geological display case overlooking the foyer felt a little out-of-date and in need of creative intervention. These types of requests aren’t uncommon, and Professor Bradford usually approaches them with caution. “I get a decent number of emails like that,” he recounts. “Lots of people saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some art students to come paint a mural on the side of a building, it’s a great opportunity for them to get some experience.’ I can’t always pay attention to those, since I have to be careful with using students’ time and labor.”

But the concept of this project had some unique potential. Professor Bradford had been working independently on an idea linking the Webb space telescope to the local beryllium mine at Spor Mountain in Delta, Utah. The telescope’s mirror system is constructed entirely out of beryllium, which is used because of its ability to retain its shape in a wide range of temperatures. Nearly all of that beryllium comes from an open-pit mine in central Utah. This project provided an unusual opportunity to take on a project closely aligned with Bradford’s interest in land and land use, in a location where those same landscapes and materials are already being considered.

Bradford approached students in his Digital 3D Sculpture class, which makes use of 3D scanning, modeling, and printing tools, laser cutters, and CNC machines to create both physical and digital artworks. Usually a class like this builds its assignments on a smaller scale, with students working independently on personal projects. After some discussion, however, students were excited about working together on the idea. It would involve collaboration not only with each other as classmates, but also with an entirely separate department. One of those students, Brenna Cooper (BFA, class of 2024), reflects on that collaboration: “I think it’s extremely valuable for an artist to work with other disciplines. A critical part of art is asking questions and exchanging ideas. So for me, going into this project knowing very little about geology gave me the opportunity to start at the beginning and ask questions. Working with others is an opportunity to stretch and experiment, which is always a good thing.”

Visiting faculty from the Geology Department answered questions from the class to provide some scientific details to the project, to help inform its central ideas. “We learned about the geological processes, [about] how all elements originally come from stars and space,” Cooper said of the process. “And then thinking about how the telescope uses elements which come from space in order to learn more about the history of space was really interesting to me.”

Professor Bradford also had some questions to contribute to the project: “I had done some pre-thinking, because I was interested in things involving the Webb space telescope; it hadn’t been launched at this point, but we had an inkling that it may reshape our understanding of the cosmos. Big, philosophical stuff—what is the universe, and what are we?”

From there, they set out to work. Rather than simply filling the display case that existed, the team of artists opted to create a unique artwork designed specifically for the space. The result is a relief-style sculpture, consisting of a massive three-dimensional topographic map of Spor Mountain, crafted from 18 panels of wood blocks ranging from one to seven layers in thickness. Punctuating the wall-mounted sculpture are eight hexagonal inserts, coated in a gold sheen to replicate the color of the Webb telescope. The hexagons also act as shelves, displaying objects and images that represent the stages of the geologic formation and mining of beryllium.

Although the process was being overseen by Bradford, students played an important role in both the conceptual and mechanical development of the project. “One of the students proposed that central idea behind the hexagons,” he recalled, “...that they would sort of tell a story of the creation of beryllium. The trajectory was sort of before earth, during refining, and after refining, that kind of thing. We all thought that was a great idea.” Decisions about the construction often had to be made on the fly, adapting to unforeseen scenarios, with the installation of the work creating its own set of challenges to confront. Students helped problem-solve during every step of the process, each making their own creative contributions to the project.

The process of creating this work spanned a little over a year and a half, beginning in early 2022. By the time the process was completed in early Fall semester 2023, three sections of Bradford’s classes had contributed work to the project, with some students hired to work on the final stages of the sculpture during summer of 2023. “This is my first time working consistently on a project this long, and there were definitely times where it felt like we bit off more than we could chew,” Brenna Cooper said of the experience. “But it feels really satisfying to see it all come together. I actually feel sad that it’s coming to an end. I have really loved working on it.”

The display can be seen in its permanent location on the second floor of the Eyring Science Center’s main foyer.