Bringing disparate images together into a unified whole seems to come naturally to ceramic artist Ann Christenson, professor of fine arts at Washington State University. It’s particularly evident in one of her most recent projects-a sundial.
Christenson was one of several artists invited by the University of California, Berkeley, to submit a design for the sundial, as part of the renovation of a courtyard within the Clark Kerr Campus at the university. The limitations imposed upon the design-that part of the area containing the sundial could be flat and that sundial parts be theft proof-led Christenson to choose an analemmatic sundial of tile and bronze incorporated into the courtyard floor. Analemmatic sundials are usually in the form of an ellipse with proportions determined by the latitude of the location or the way the sun’s rays hit the earth. In Christenson’s design, which she named Momently, the person viewing the sundial serves as the vertical “stick” whose shadow indicates the time.
Christenson was fortunate to have her son, Jack Schonbrun, as a collaborator on the project, as his skills complemented hers. Schonbrun, a postdoctoral associate in biophysics at the University of Washington, researched the mathematics for the sundial and calculated its proportions, as well as the date scale for the line on which the viewer stands-an unequal scale that relates to the length, rather than number, of days.
Christenson’s design places the sundial within a 20-foot circle divided into quadrants. The hour markers on the sundial alternate between Roman numerals, traditionally used on sundials, and the hand signs of American Sign Language, a reference to the history of the space, which originated as the California School for the Deaf and Blind. There also are stylized zodiac signs, another tie to traditional sundials.
Each quadrant includes a mosaic image of antique Spanish lace, a tie to the Spanish style of the area’s architecture; a mosaic figure from the natural world, such as the Coopers hawk that nests on campus; and a diagrammatic representation in bronze of part of the geometry of the sundial.
Electronics were central to the project, as its implementation occurred in five separate locations. Christenson’s design was translated into a full-scale computer model. “If everyone followed the model, then when all the parts got to Berkeley, they should fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says Christenson.
The tiles were made at Quarry Tile in Spokane. Prototypes of the bronze inlays were made in Portland, Oregon, and the bronzes were cast at the Walla Walla Foundry. Tiles and forms for the bronzes were cut with water jets at Precision H2O in Spokane.
The tile mosaics were made in Christenson’s studio by several different people. Since there was no formula for translating the design into mosaics, there often were stylistic differences between individual mosaics that had to be reworked in order to create a uniform whole. This meant late nights for Christenson, who spent many hours looking over the day’s work and making any necessary adjustments.
On the site at Berkeley, concrete was poured to surround the sundial and form the pathways that divide the circle into quadrants. It was then up to the tile setter, who prepared the tile bed, set the tile and bronzes, and grouted. That the pieces of the puzzle all fit is obvious to sundial viewers and a relief to Christenson.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she says. “The process was a tremendous learning experience.”