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Alumna designs railing at sustainability site

ErinBennet-1Shepherd University’s Sustainability Site located behind the Robert C. Byrd Science and Technology Center has a decorative and sustainable new railing thanks to the efforts of a recent art graduate. Erin Bennett designed the metal railing, which is made of scrap steel and stainless steel with decorative aluminum maple tree seed pods attached to it.

Bennett, who graduated in May with a B.F.A. in photography and a B.F.A. in sculpture, was chosen to design the fence through a competitive process during an advanced sculpture class. She chose a maple seed theme in part because the sugar maple is the state tree of West Virginia and because of her experience here at Shepherd.

“I felt like the seeds are reflective of the students who come to Shepherd and then continue on their own,” she said. “They’re wind-based seeds so they travel farther and longer than others might.”

Bennett, who said much of her artwork focuses on sustainability and the environment, grew up near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, surrounded by maple trees.

“I have just an amazing amount of silver maple trees in my back yard, so every May they just spread seeds and we have little tiny forests everywhere,” she said. “My dad always tries to chop them down so I save a couple of them every year.”

The approximately four-foot railing sits on top of an old limestone wall on the west edge of the parking lot across from White Hall. The lower section is made from scrap steel. Looping stainless steel pipes run along the top portion. Bennett said the pipes are meant to mimic wind moving the seeds, which are soldered on.

“The stainless steel contrasts with the rusted steel and it reflects a wind movement of the seeds, so they are kind of being carried through,” Bennett said.

Bennett first sculpted the 28 maple seeds out of clay. She then went through a process of making wax, plaster, and sand molds before pouring in aluminum melted in the art department’s foundry using biodiesel fuel made by environmental science students out of cooking oil from the dining hall. She said each seed is slightly different from the others.

“They were all cast from the same mold but the casting process leaves a little wiggle room depending on how the metal cools,” she said. “If it cools quicker or slower it will do different things. And the shrinkage that happens when the metal cools sometimes creates little pockets in them. It was ‘naturey’ and it makes sense and it’s fun.”

Christian Benefiel, assistant professor of art, teaches the advanced sculpture class and is working with facilities management and Bennett to install the railing. Benefiel said students who competed for the project had to answer an open call for submissions, come up with a budget, proof of concept drawings, and site plans. Students were given a few criteria, including the railing had to meet code and be sustainable. A committee comprised of representatives from the environmental science and art departments, the town, and building and grounds selected Bennett’s design.

Benefiel said submitting proposals to build the railing gave the students a good idea of what it’s like to compete for a public sculpture project.

“This is not the design that was proposed line for line. Modifications had to be made to meet building code; they had to be made to adjust for the space,” Benefiel said. “A lot of times that’s what happens. You come up with an idea and it’s about making that idea work for all the parties involved.”

Dr. Clarissa Mathews, professor of environmental and physical sciences and chair of the Institute of Environmental and Physical Sciences, said it’s hoped the new railing will be educational as well as functional.

“We will be able to display to the public and to the campus how you can re-purpose materials without extracting new resources, how you can construct things without having a large carbon output,” Mathews said. “On the aesthetic side, we just hope the fence makes this a very friendly area. We’re hoping more folks will come hang out, maybe sit at picnic tables, eat lunch, and converse.”

For her part, Bennett said she’s just glad to finally see the project come to fruition.

“It’s like a dream come true,” she said. “You see it in your mind but you don’t really actually think that it’s going to happen for sure until it’s standing here. So it’s really cool. It’s very nice.”