Disintegrated. Buried. Eaten by termites. Weathered by high-altitude winds. Like the natural world they are inspired by, renowned environmental sculptor John Grade’s works of art are ephemeral and constantly changing. Grade employs the forces of nature to alter or dismantle many of his intricate sculptures in surprising ways.

Last Wednesday at 7 p.m., Grade spoke at the Michael C. Carlos Museum reception hall about his work, his creative process and his future projects. The talk was just one of a series of events that will transpire during his four-day-long return to Emory.

During his previous visit, Grade created the “Piedmont Divide” pieces. One hangs over the Quadrangle, and the other sprouts out of Candler Lake in Emory’s Lullwater Park. Graduate and art students crafted the pieces are out of recycled bottles. The pieces are meant to increase environmental awareness on campus.

One of the works Grade focused on during his presentation was known as “The Elephant Bed.” The work, originally shown at the Fabrica Art Gallery in Brighton, United Kingdom, was modeled by Grade after the shell of the Coccolithophore, a phytoplankton that blooms en masse in the ocean. The plankton creates a turquoise tinge in the water that is visible from space, Grade said.
“I thought of this really beautiful image to imagine of all of these billions of little shells slowly sinking down to the floor of the sea when they died,” Grade said.

Grade and a team of 70 artists who assisted him created the enormous, gently sloping conical figures out of a dissolvable paper material, then hung them from the ceiling of the gallery. Half of the figures hung over pools of black ink. All of the figures were attached to a system of pulleys and strings that met at the front of the room. Visitors could raise and lower them by pulling on the series of strings. Grade compared the system to a harp.

When the figures were dipped into the pool of black ink, the ink slowly leeched upwards and dissolved them.

After the exhibit concluded, Grade had artists wear the figures like an enormous, surreal costume. Then they marched out of the exhibit, through the streets of Brighton and directly into the nearby English Channel, where the figures dissolved in less than 40 seconds.

“We didn’t have permission to do this either, so we tried to do it early in the morning,” Grade said. “We walked about six blocks.”

Grade’s current project may be his most ambitious yet. He is building an enormous sculpture for the new Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, Washington. The 64-foot tall sculpture will be made of wood planking that Grade salvaged from the Wawona, a historic schooner constructed in 1897.

From the center of the planned figure, a visitor would be able to look down and see the water below the museum, then look upwards to see the sky. The sculpture was intended to pierce the museum itself, extending through both the roof and the floor.

That was the plan, at least. The museum is considered to be a historical building; as a result, the sculpture cannot go through the ceiling. The floor is still fair game, though, Grade said.

To work around this, Grade will use technology. There will be a live feed of the sky that he will project from the inside of the sculpture at all times. Grade views this as a potential blessing, as the museum could utilize footage from across the world or even from the past. A museum-goer years from now could potentially look up and see what the sky looked like from Fiji on today’s date, the sculptor said.

The original design for “Piedmont Divide” was quite different. Grade said at first he was inspired by the West Nile Virus research conducted by Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The original design, while similar in structure to “Piedmont Divide,” involved hanging mosquito larva.

“I originally intended, in all of these little scoops, to put mosquito larva ­– it’s not safe enough to actually do,” Grade said. “But I liked the idea of all of these students having this looming menace above their heads.”

Grade left open the possibility of returning again to Emory to create another work of art.
“It’s been such a great experience,” Grade said. “The people here and the Art Department are amazing. So yeah, I’d love to come back.”

– Contact David Stess.