Expansive rust covers the perimeter of the 12,000-square-foot Environmental Systems Laboratory on Prices Fork Road, but it’s not the walls themselves that are corroding.
Three miles west of the Virginia Tech campus, Steve Bickley, professor of sculpture studio arts, lined the building with innumerable metal sculptures. Many of them, colorful and thin, rise tower-like overhead.
“That’s my sculpture graveyard,” Bickley said, laughing.
While Bickley enjoys the classroom setting back on campus, he said academia is secondary to his cherished craft. His frequent extracurricular enterprises have spread his name throughout the country, including Minneapolis and Denver.
“I just happen to be an artist that teaches,” he said.
But his perspective doesn’t translate as neglect for the University. In fact, Bickley’s personal endeavors have yielded several metal pieces for Tech outfits and individuals. He produced an outdoor sculpture for the Women’s Center as well as the millennium mace, which was carried during the first graduation ceremony of Charles Steger’s presidency.
Steger happens to be one of the catalysts behind Bickley’s latest and largest campus commission.
The first of two buildings for the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science opened in March 2009 at the corner of Turner Street and Stranger Street. ICTAS Director Roop Mahajan said he hoped the architecture would have better reflected the happenings within. With the ICTAS main lobby encased by glass however, Mahajan saw the opportunity for artwork to accomplish that communication to any passersby.
“Another statement we are making is that art and engineering, they are not on the two sides of the spectrum,” Mahajan said. “They really are complementary to each other.”
Mahajan said he talked with Steger who then recommended Bickley for the project.
Bickley said the idea was surprising. He hadn’t seen art as an interior staple on campus.
“This is a great thing that’s sort of a first at Virginia Tech,” Bickley said, “and I’ve been here 32 years.”
The undertaking, completed during winter break, wasn’t a solo endeavor. Mahajan merged Bickley with Ivica Ico Bukvic, assistant professor in music composition & technology.
From their collaboration emerged an amorphous, interactive wall sculpture just inside the ICTAS main entry doors. Behind a greeting counter, the organic aluminum shape follows the turn of the L-shaped nook and spans an adjacent doorway.
Bickley said the fluidity is like water, although it can also be abstracted as a biological reference. Scattered in the aluminum are small green Plexiglas forms that allude to blood cells and DNA construction.
Four of the green forms contain sensors that are hooked up to speakers. When each is approached, the wall sculpture audibly responds. Pre-recorded text describing ICTAS research efforts and goals is displayed, while Bukvic created complementary sounds using computerized algorithmic equations intended to randomize the output.
“It becomes this kind of infinite sound fabric which ideally will never be the same,” Bukvic said.
Mahajan said Bickley and Bukvic were successful.
“It appeals to the imagination of the people who are in abstract thinking, but then for engineers we have the microphones,” Mahajan said, laughing. “It was a good combination.”
Bickley already showcased the ICTAS sculpture in pursuit of other commissions.
He’s made a proposal for a competition to decorate an entryway at Dulles International Airport. Seven walls would contain seven panels, each with information about a specific continent.