Firmament 1

If you walk into Mount St. Mary’s University’s Knott Academic Center at night, you will be greeted by a soft blue light. Looking up, you will discover the source of that light, “The Firmament,” a new art piece created by Nick Hutchings. Nick is an Assistant Professor in the Mount’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Paul Miller, graduate student associate for the College of Liberal Arts, recently interviewed Professor Hutchings about this amazing piece.

Q: How did the commissioning of the piece come about?

Hutchings: Originally, I proposed this to Karl Einolf when he was Dean of the Bolte School of Business a few years ago. He was supportive, but the project did not materialize at that time. Last year, Pete Dorsey, Dean of the CLA, asked me about art in the AC, and I told him about my original proposal. He was quite excited about the idea. He reached out to Karl Einolf about the Bolte School’s supporting the funding along with the CLA. Pete brought the project to the attention of Dr. Jennie Hunter-Cevera, the Interim-Provost, who brought it to the attention of President Trainor as well as to the Cabinet. I then proposed the project directly to President Trainor and to the cabinet. Everyone has been very supportive. It was a team effort.

Q: Did you collaborate with anyone else on the piece?

Firmament 2Hutchings: I had two student assistants who helped me construct the piece: Jodie McSparron and Jack Bonner.

Q: What was your inspiration for the piece? Were there other artists that influenced you?

Hutchings: Alain Badiou wrote “through the visibility of artifice, which is also the thinking of poetic thought, the poem surpasses in  power what the sensible is capable of itself.” This work reflects on a series of concepts and questions about our existence in this universe and the boundaries of our understanding. These boundaries are framed by the context of our experience, and they shape our understanding of the universe and our place within it. The idea of the firmament, or vault between the seas as written in the first chapter of Genesis, informs the conceptual scaffolding of this artwork. In Genesis, it is written “And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.’ So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.” The firmament, also known as the Raqia in Jewish mysticism, is this boundary.

Firmament 3Raqia translates as “to beat or spread out.” This is similar to the image of copper, beaten by a metalsmith, in order to spread out the material into large sheets. This vault, according to Genesis, is where stars of the heaven have been fixed. Similarly, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the eighth level of heaven is where the stars are fixed to the sphere above the earth. Thus symbolically, the firmament is the empirical limit of our universe, while the expanse references our known universe—or the space between the waters.

The artwork also echoes imagery of neural synapses in the brain and the elaborate connections between them. The billions of connections in the brain and how our thought emerges from them is a beautiful question, and I wrestle with a way to reflect on that image. While in quantum physics, string theory suggests that particles across the universe are tethered and interconnected. Is this similar to the connections between synapses in a brain?  Thus, can we theorize that the particles in our brains are tethered to the stars in the vastness of space? We are composed of the same particles that formed the stars and exploded in an age long ago. We are all made of stars. Thus the stars reach out towards us and we in return are tethered to them.

Q: Is there a particular response or emotion you want to provoke with the piece?

Hutchings: Once I have created the work it is its own. That means interpretation will vary. Yet, I aim to place the  viewer in a  position of conscious engagement with the    artwork. Like writing a Haiku, I remove superfluous  elements from the art to speak in a more succinct and  powerful voice without sacrificing the poetic. This  artwork is a quiet interruption of the ‘noise’ of daily  life,  which allows the viewer’s interpretation to emerge and  grants a space for being present in relation to the artwork.

Q: How do you feel your piece contributes to the overall aesthetics of the Knott Academic Center?

Firmament 4Hutchings: The atrium of the Knott Academic Center is the precise space for the exploration of this artwork. It is my aim with this installation to contextualize a space for an aesthetic experience that reflects the ephemerality of presence yet leaves an indelible mark in the memory of one who experiences it. This artwork will be a wonderful center piece to all who visit our fine campus. Aesthetics can positively influence the way we feel about a space and the AC is in need of an aesthetic revival. It can also influence the way potential students receive the Knott Academic Center and help the community feel proud of our great university.

Q: What are some ways we can promote the fine arts at our university? How might we encourage our students to consider majoring in the fine arts?

Nick HutchingsHutchings: You do not have to be a major to be involved in our department. There are many opportunities for students to get involved in the VPA. From music ensembles, to chorale, to theater productions, to taking an art class and applying for the Simon Brute Juried Student Art Exhibit. The options and levels of involvement can be curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular.




                                                                                                           Prof. Nick Hutchings