Art Watch: New solar art installation is out of this world

By Lele Galer, Columnist, The Times

West Chester University has been steadily increasing the presence of art throughout its beautiful campus in West Chester Pennsylvania. The latest artistic space was created outside the entrance to WCU’s Mather Planetarium, located off of the intersection of Church Street and Rosedale Avenue.

Clay artist Rhoda Kahler was commissioned to create “Constellation”, a mosaic installation of hand-built clay pieces, mirrors and tile that Rhoda made on site to surround the Planetarium doorways.

Dr. John Baker and Rhoda Kahler with the new kinetic sculpture by Dave Beck at West Chester University.

A large kinetic steel yellow and blue sculpture by Dave Beck commands the small central Planetarium quad, whose pathways lead through campus. About 300 feet from the Sun sculpture is a newly acquired kinetic, shiny steel sculpture “Naked Alien” by Jeff Kahn, that moves with the wind. Also recently acquired, and ready for installation, are 13 “Shadow” bronze sculptures by famous local artist Tom Bostelle. From most any pathway on campus, a student or visitor can see a work of art, and next year, the University plans to make an “Art Walk”, a self-guided tour of art within the campus of West Chester University. The Planetarium art installation is just the latest in a larger plan to integrate expand the visibility of the arts across campus.

Last week, metal sculptor Dave Beck completed the installation of his large kinetic abstract steel sculpture representing the sun. Set directly across from Kahler’s mosaiced entrance to the Planetarium, Beck’s sculpture is of a large yellow sphere, encased in two layers of revolving blue metal domes. Dave Beck is an artist as well as the Senior Metal Fabricator for Longwood Gardens.

At Longwood, he does “a little bit of everything” and works with the Longwood Design Studio for metal elements in display support. Through Unionville High School’s vo-tech program, and then Technical school for welding in Ohio, Dave has always loved working with metal.

Ten years ago, he became interested in the more artistic side of metal working, but he “didn’t know how to approach it or get into it..but I was drawn to it.” A life-changing “Metal Shaping” seminar opened up his eyes “to see a skill that I had, and how to harness it. It helped me to see shape within metal.”

Six years ago Dave Beck took renowned local sculptor Stan Smokler’s summer metal sculpture workshop, and that “was the icing on the cake! A light went off.. it was one of the best weeks of my life.” (I feel the same way!) From there Dave showed at the Unionville Art Gala; a great venue where many artists have shown for their first art show. From The Unionville Art Gala, he showed at The Chester County Studio Tour, and from that point on, his sculptures have been installed and exhibited all over Chester County. Dave Beck’s “Sun” sculpture is his first site specific public art commission, and it is open to public viewing anytime.

The first thing you notice about the large Sun sculpture is the color. For a sculpture to last outdoors, the most durable treatment is called “powder coating,” but powder coating can leave a very flat finish that take away all the interesting textures and nuances of a surface. To make the surface interesting, as well as powder coated, Dave Beck worked with the team at Brooks Powder Coating in West Chester to create multiple layers of different blues, as well as an iridescent blue, which all combine to give a very celestial, deepened blue surface. The blue demi-orbs spin around the yellow sun element. The sun element is peppered with textures and holes, and within the holes are solar powered lights that radiate in the evening.

Rhoda Kahler’s Constellation mosaic.

When the “Sun” lights up, the lights are reflected in the mirror tiles in Rhoda Kahler’s mosaic, and voila! We have the start of a constellation with lights reflecting above and below!

Rhoda Kahler is a very well known clay artist, art teacher, and mural installation artist. If you have not already done so, visit the art center on campus and see the gorgeous, huge mosaic installation called “Transition” which Rhoda Kahler did in 2013. The Tom Bostelle metal “Shadow” figures will be installed near “Transition”. Rhoda’s fascinating combination of handmade shapes, cut mirrors and tiles create unearthly forms that hover and float midst a deep watery blue green grout. It is gorgeous!

The Planetarium beautification project has been planned for many years, and has evolved in several stages. Under the supervision and guidance of Dr. John Baker, artist, and WCU Faculty emeritus and former chair of WCU’s Department of Art & Design, the Planetarium project took shape, received generous funding and is set for a public dedication ceremony August 21 at 6pm.

Baker explained that they wanted to create a “destination space with an art component.” He explained that ,”We are very fortunate to have such generous donors and alumni that support the arts. It is a shared vision to create a greater awareness of the visual arts throughout campus. We have had the support and aid of the administration, dean and university foundation.”

Baker and the arts committee were responsible for choosing the artists for the site, and there were many long hours at every stage of the planning. The Planetarium not only serves as the main building for the WCU astronomy students, but also welcomes more than 2300 children, students and families in their public outreach programs every year.

The first stage of the Planetarium project was actually three years ago, when Baker selected student art works to serve as a Planetarium gallery space along the interior curved hallway. The artworks are each very different from one another but very loosely share a theme of astronomy. The second phase of the project was to create an artistic fundraiser that would draw the eye, and also acknowledge people that have donated to the Planetarium’s beautification. John Baker created an 8 inch shooting star, and then cast 200 of them. Currently 100 shooting stars travel around the middle of the Planetarium, all with the names of the many donors and friends of WCU. There are 100 more shooting stars to claim. If you would like to name a shooting star, or buy one in someone else’s name, please contact The West Chester University Foundation and they can arrange that to happen for a donation of $250 or more, at

I asked John if there were any more stages to this Planetarium art project, and he said that they do have plans to set planet markers around campus that would circumvent Dave Beck’s Sun sculpture, in relative equidistance as our solar system’s planets are to our sun. It should be noted that every artistic concept was discussed thoroughly with the Planetarium’s Director and Project ASTRO Director, Dr. Karen Schwarz. Dr. Schwarz even discussed the shapes and choices for the hand-built ceramic forms that Rhoda Kahler incorporated into her Constellation mosaic. This was an enormous community effort, that now anyone can visit and enjoy.

While I was waiting to interview Dr. Baker and Rhoda Kahler in the installation courtyard, I noticed an abundantly full garden of sunflowers and vegetables surrounding the sculpture area. A young woman named Gina Mertz, popped her head up from the garden space, said a big hello and handed me an armful of delicious smelling basil! Gina is a WCU garden intern for the North Campus garden outdoor classroom and demonstration garden. She explained that the honors students established the garden space and interns like her maintain it. The vegetables and herbs that are grown there are donated to local food banks and also available to the public, students and faculty. The gardens use no pesticides or herbicides, and it is stunning! Gina is justifiably proud of this beautiful garden, and wanted to be sure to get the word out about it. Gardens like this need helping hands, financial support and also people to enjoy the abundant healthy fresh greens. We made a delicious pesto that very night – thank you Gina and the rest of the North Campus garden team!

If you are looking for a wonderful free place to walk and enjoy thrilling art displays and beautiful organic gardens, park the car at West Chester University and have a delightful walk through campus. To meet the artists and the dozens of others involved in the Planetarium project, go to the opening ceremony at 6pm on August 21st.

This week’s Art Watch Radio on WCHE am 1520 includes metal sculptors Dave Beck, Rob Sigafoos and Ellen Durkan, hosted by Lele Galer from 1-1:30 Wednesday July 18.

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