Exploring Student Art at UW Botanic Gardens, Part 1

In early summer 2017, Connor Walden, a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Washington in 3D4M (3-dimensional Forum), jumped from concrete into the refreshing water of the Gulf of Mexico, cutting his foot on a sharp oyster shell. When Walden talked with his doctor about the cut, he learned that it was possible that he could contract a fatal infection from it. This is the experience that Walden has captured in his most recent work, Lift Off, now installed on the grounds at the Center for Urban Horticulture, just southwest of Merrill Hall and Goodfellow Grove.

The central monument of Lift Off, a new art installation at the Center for Urban Horticulture, by MFA candidate Connor Walden.

Walden did not contract the infection, starting at UW this past fall as planned, but facing that very real possibility of his own death started him thinking about passing and passing on information. He began thinking about monuments and how they are able to capture significant events. Even just a year later, the story has already become somewhat mythologized and dramatized. In memorializing the incident, he wants the essence of that story to remain true and unchanged.

The most prominent part of the piece is a cedar, casket-sized monument with a reflection pool on top, shown in the image above. On the front of the monument is a plaster and graphite carving of the concrete path and Gulf waters, with a fateful oyster shell hovering in the middle of the sky. The monument was the first part of the work that Walden conceptualized, but he was also interested in feet playing a prominent role, as they had in bringing him to his doctor. A spiral walkway of concrete blocks leads through the grass and back to the monument. Wooden markers with an oyster shell symbol on them denote the start of the path, reminiscent of the scallop shell markers that guide pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

The title Lift Off has two inspirations. At one point, while walking around the Union Bay Natural Area, Walden saw a duck coming in for a landing on the water. That scene stayed with him as he worked to put his ideas into a physical form, incorporated as the reflection pool that sits on top of the monument. Walden admits, though, that he doesn’t expect a duck to actually use the reflection pool as a landing strip. In addition, Walden started thinking about monuments as a departure point, a reflection on what does not continue and what does, what lifts off.

The site’s own history fits into this story well, something that Walden brought up when I spoke with him about the piece. For those who are not aware, much of the land that now houses the Center for Urban Horticulture was used as a landfill for over 40 years (actually mentioned in a recent blog post about student restoration work). A landfill, in many ways, is its own symbol of death and passing on, but now life comes from what was once discarded. With the help of students, faculty, and volunteers, the land has gotten a new opportunity to support native plants and wildlife. Both the stories of the land at the Center for Urban Horticulture and Walden’s own experience speak to the opportunity provided by death and ask us to consider the lessons learned from these turning points.

Markers with oyster shell motifs lead the way back to the monument.

So find the markers. Walk the path. It might be a bit of a stretch for you – the blocks are placed at Walden’s natural stride and he’s 6 feet tall. But the spacing adds to the experience and the aspects of reflection encapsulated in the space. It makes you focus, really concentrate on your steps. When you’ve spiraled your way through the pathway, stand at the monument. Look down at your reflection, maybe run your hand through the water. Is there a moment in your life that you would capture in this way? Maybe not a moment of potential death, but a moment of change when something remained while the rest of you lifted off?


Stay tuned for part 2 to learn about more great art to explore during your next visit.