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Planting Roots at JMU

Artist-in-residence explores visible aspects of the natural world
By Laura Katzman

Dalya Luttwak (far left)

Dalya Luttwak (far left)

Acclaimed Israeli-American sculptor Dalya Luttwak visited campus as the College of Visual and Performing Arts' Diversity Artist-in-Residence for spring 2010. Luttwak's sculptures reveal invisible dimensions of the natural world and call attention to that which is hidden from our view. By investigating a subterranean universe beyond our ordinary perception, Luttwak's work encourages critical thinking. She asks us not to accept the world at face value, but to dig deeper below its surface in search of greater insight or deeper understanding of its mysteries – its roots.

When the Sawhill Gallery and the School of Art and Art History featured Luttwak's work this semester, I served as curator of her site-responsive exhibition, Roots: The Hidden Half in Black and White. The installation included seven large-scale constructions along with an additional work that she placed outside of Duke Hall that will stay up for two years. In a JMU/community arts partnership, Luttwak also installed a work in the Smith House Sculpture Garden at the Arts Council of the Valley in downtown Harrisonburg.

Dalya Luttwak bases her linear structures on the roots of plants that she digs out of the earth some collected from her world travels and others from her lush garden.

Dalya Luttwak bases her linear structures (like Bamboo-Grass, above) on the roots of plants that she digs out of the earth – some collected from her world travels and others from her lush garden.

Her linear structures are based on actual roots that she digs out of the earth – some collected from her world travels and others from in and around her lush garden in Chevy Chase, Md.

The artist's aim is to unearth that which is hidden – psychologically and physically – from our ordinary field of vision and daily experiences.

Luttwak draws inspiration from the hidden stories of her own family, persecuted Jews who fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine on the eve of World War II, and from the hidden dimensions of our natural/physical environment. She is interested in what lies beneath the ground or below the surface – metaphors for the unconscious/subconscious, or hidden thoughts, intentions and meanings. Her works compel us to contemplate all that we cannot see in the world and, by extension, all that we cannot know.

Luttwak's exhibition and public art project for JMU and Harrisonburg exemplify how a visiting artist-in-residence can contribute to the university and its environs. A visiting artist's classes and critiques, which expand upon what the art curriculum and art faculty already offer, make an impact on many facets of campus life.

Inspiring and involving students

The Luttwak project, which began in late fall 2008 has been a source of inspiration for JMU students. Undergraduate interns and graduate assistants filmed her at work – forging and welding steel, forcefully manipulating it into her winding, wiry structures. One graphic design major edited this footage into a short film about the artist, while a photography major designed a 360-degree virtual tour of the exhibition for Sawhill's Web site. Media arts and design students sought local press, radio and television coverage for the project. Others helped to deconstruct, pack, transport, reassemble and secure sculptures in indoor and outdoor locations – learning the fine art of installation design from Gary Freeburg, a master photographer, installer and lighting expert. The students' projects extended and enhanced Luttwak's presence on campus – and gave her work even deeper roots in the JMU arts community.

Luttwak's sculpture Red Bamboo-Grass for the Arts Council of the Valley is displayed on Main Street.

Luttwak's sculpture Red Bamboo-Grass for the Arts Council of the Valley is displayed on Main Street.

Off campus, Luttwak attended a March 17 reception in her honor hosted by the Arts Council of the Valley, where she installed Red Bamboo-Grass. This was the result of a fruitful collaboration between the JMU School of Art and Art History and the arts council, which is directed by public art expert Cecilia Carter Brown. This collaboration will foster future art exchanges between JMU and the city and will contribute to an ongoing discussion by JMU's Public Art Taskforce – an ad-hoc committee of faculty members and administrators that brainstorms about developing a public art program at JMU.

Art's significance in a well-rounded education

The College of Visual and Performing Arts and the JMU Office of Diversity generously funded her project and indicates the JMU administration's recognition of the importance of the visual arts to ensure a well-rounded education and their significance to the cultural welfare of the campus and community. Even in lean times artists (through their works and words) can boost morale, offer hope and envision new worlds and new possibilities that nonartists cannot always see or imagine.

Watch an interview with JMU's diversity artist-in-residence.

Visit Luttwak's Web site.

Condensed from Spring/Summer 2010 "Madison."