New Woods Quad Sculpture Represents Both Math and Art

From the August 2018 Desktop News | As students explore campus this fall, they will notice Woods Quad’s newest resident: a 14-foot-tall, 1,500-pound white sculpture.

Borromeo Rings
Borromeo Rings

The sculpture, created by studio art minor Paget Kern, is the result of a collaboration between the art and math departments in an effort to display math more visually on campus.

“Math has a terrible time talking about itself, especially pure mathematics,” said Dr. David Cruz-Uribe, the chair of the math department. “So I wanted to do something to make math alive, to make math beautiful.”

The collaboration involved Dr. Cruz-Uribe and Craig Wedderspoon, a sculpture professor, as well as some of their art and math students, including Kern. Although they knew it would be tough going into the project, finding a balance between the two subjects seemed especially challenging.

“It was kind of like they were speaking two different languages,” Wedderspoon said. “None of the art students knew what the math students were talking about, and none of the math students knew what the art students were talking about, but once they figured out how to efficiently communicate, things got really interesting.”

After months of collaborating and developing ideas, the team chose Kern’s design: three Möbius strips connected together in borromeo rings. A Möbius strip is an ordinary ring with a twist in it, making a continuous surface that requires one to go all the way around it twice before returning to the original point. The rings are then interlocked in a way that, if one ring was removed, the other two would no longer be connected, known as borromeo rings.

Once the team landed on a design, Kern and the art department got to work on constructing the sculpture’s skeleton out of donated steel from the Nucor Corporation. Then, sheet metal was manipulated around the skeleton and the sculpture was assembled.

“Most outdoor sculptures are made out of aluminum, which is relatively light, but we used steel, which is much, much heavier,” Kern said. “Assembling it involved cutting each ring in half, connecting the bottoms, hoisting up the top pieces and bringing them down, and welding them back together. The whole sculpture department helped with that. We had forklifts, and we had a lot of people who could do heavy lifting.”

Almost a year to the day after Kern began constructing her project, the sculpture was placed in its new home of Woods Quad, surrounded by beautiful plant life and other sculptures created or purchased by the College of Arts and Sciences. But for Cruz-Uribe, the best part of project was the interaction between the two departments.

“The whole project was really unique,” Cruz-Uribe said. “It got the art students thinking with a whole new vocabulary of shapes and curves and ideas, and it got the math students to think about how to make things real, to make them beautiful and simple in a way that people can actually see, touch, and appreciate.”