Client: University of Texas Medical Branch
Location: Galveston, TX, United States
Completion date: 2019
A three-floor stairwell features original painted imagery combined with graphic design and illustration to tell the story of both the school’s history and its vision for the future. The wall treatment, printed on powder-coated aluminum panels, measures 27’ x 51’ and spans three floors.
The composition of the whole work offers the rewarding experience of exploration and discovery for viewers passing between floors, responding both to close inspection as well as to comprehensive views from the landings.
Artist Ron Gordon began with a depiction of the iconic Ashbel Smith Building (1891), an historic landmark on campus that serves as the visual brand identity for the UTMB. In the upper floors, the architectural rendering gives way to a treescape depicting the island’s palm trees, the skies above, and then the stars beyond. The ground floor treatment is more active and bright for a space with more public programming, while the upper floors are quieter and more contemplative, to reflect the intellectual work going on in those areas.
The skyscape is also laced with biomolecular imagery, genetic codes and double helices, that reflect the subjects of study at the graduate school. Professors now use the artwork as an teach tool.
Before the artist’s contribution, this installation already required with combination of architectural expertise, precise environmental graphic design work that addresses both large-scale compositing and small-scale details, as well as a careful planning to map the composition of the final image into the space in order to create an meaningful and interactive experience.
The artist was commissioned in order to ensure that the foundational elements of the stairwell imagery were completely unique and reflected the work of the artist’s hand using traditional media. The commissioned work served to balance technical precision with an artist’s individual interpretation. The artist brought to the project the strength of a wide-ranging practice in painting that could, at turns, address architectural subjects, botanical abstractions, as well as splatter paint techniques
A team of digital artists and graphic designers stitched and edited all this together to make it ready to print onto panels that would be precisely installed without visible seams or flaws. These designers also contributed the microscopic details to the work in a style of scientific illustration that contrasted with the painted work while fitting comfortably within it.
The creative direction for this installation passed through several iterations before bringing the artist to the table, based on his appealing body of work in abstract botanical subjects that derive interest from intense complexity of detail, layering of media, and overall legibility of composition balanced with a challenging interpretive abstraction. Viewers can experience the rewards of exploration and movement through his typical work.
The artist received ongoing and detailed plans to understand how the stairwell would determine the many ways that viewers would experience the work. During the painting process, it was necessary to address the scale of individual elements within overall installation. (Several of these panels would be framed and installed elsewhere in the building.)
Because the imagery would be magnified x3 and printed on powder-coated aluminum panels, these hand-touched and material qualities were all the more necessary. The artists brought insight into that challenge as well, preparing painterly details that would succeed at much larger sizes, as well as broad passages in the starry skies that could be read with interest from a distance.
The project was completed and installed in time for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, which coincided with the completion of the new education building. The new education center, by featuring an image of the original Ashbel Smith Building – aka “Big Red” – so prominently in its most populated area on the first floor, honors the history of UTMB. The original building is the site where graduation photos are taken each year. The stairwell of the new building has also become a selfie-station, benefiting from the painter’s emphatic approach to the painted architectural details. At the same time, the exploration and discovery of the rest of the work, as students and staff ascend the stairwell, mirrors the school’s ambitious research agenda and its goal to create new knowledge. The challenging mixture of scales, mapping microscopic structures onto the stars, signifies the vast future of this work to be done.