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Mile 853, the public art in Jones Hall

Public art, Mile 853, is located 19 feet above ground in the U's Freshman Admissions Welcome Center in Jones Hall.

Mile 853: Mississippi meets the U

U alum creates public art for freshman welcome center

By Pauline Oo

Oct. 31. 2006

So, what's the best way to appreciate Mile 853?

Well, you could take the 90-minute University of Minnesota campus tour, or you could just plop yourself down on one of the maroon couches in the U's Freshman Admissions Welcome Center and gaze at the ceiling. Mile 853 is the location of the U's Twin Cities campus along the Mississippi River, as measured in nautical miles. And it's also the name of the University's newest piece of public art--a mesmerizing glass construction 19 feet above the freshman welcome center's reception area.

The University commissioned artist and U alum Barbra Nei to create something that would fit into an existing light grid installed below Jones Hall's central skylight. (The historic Jones Hall, once home to physics, studio art and art history, reopened in September 2005 after an $8 million remodel. The hall now houses the freshman welcome center and College of Liberal Arts Language Center.) Nei envisioned her work as a river of information, a concept that pays tribute to University research and to the river that winds through the Twin Cities campus.

"When I approached this piece, I thought about what would be really exciting for someone coming to the campus," says Nei, who received her M.F.A. in 1993. "What excited me when I came to the U, was the amazing amount of information, different disciplines and resources." The Twin Cities campus, alone, with its 17 colleges, offers more than 370 fields of study.

Nei's legwork for the public art included sorting through old photographs at the U Archives; researching archival maps of campus at the U's John R. Borchert Map Library, one of the largest and most heavily used academic map libraries in the nation; learning about topography from the U.S. Geological Survey; and contacting University faculty members for current research that could be excerpted for the piece.

Mile 853 is made up of four layers of glass, each sandblasted with text and excerpts from published articles and research documents by University faculty and staff in 11 languages, including Icelandic, Ojibwe and Oromo. Text placements on the 32-by-16 feet work correspond to academic locations on campus where they were produced and the locations' relationship to the river. For example, a line of text from a medical research paper by Frank Cerra, senior vice president of the U's Academic Health Center, borders the Mississippi on the East Bank and a passage from associate professor of art Joyce Lyon forms the river's shore on the West Bank.

This past March, Nei sent the piece to a studio in Germany that specializes in archictectural art glass. The combination of sandblasting, etching and permanent vitreous fired-on enamel color, explains Nei, ensures the piece will last for generations to come.

Public art on campus

The University acquires its collection of permanent and temporary public art works as gifts, through commissions, or as loans from an artist or a museum. If an artist is commissioned, he or she is paid with money from a public art fund set up specifically for a University building. (In 1983, state law mandated that one percent of a state-funded building's construction costs must be allocated for public art.) A committee--made up of faculty, staff, and students--from the University of Minnesota's Public Art on Campus program chooses the artist and work of art.

The Twin Cites campus has more than three dozen public artworks, ranging from traditional sculpture to landscaped gardens to multimedia installations. The U's public art program is one of about 300 of its kind in the nation. Some of the art on the University's campuses has been around a long time, like Daniel Chester French's 1900 bronze statue of Governor John Pillsbury on the Knoll in Minneapolis; other pieces are brand new, like Barbra Nei's Mile 853.

"I really wanted to make a piece that would stand the test of time, which was a challenge with the budget, time and space I had--19 feet up from the floor and 6 feet under the skylight or ceiling windows--and it had to be archival, which meant the piece had to last a hundred years," she says.

Nei had her moment of artistic glory following the Memorial Day weekend installation of the artwork--that probably weighs as much as a UPS truck.

"When my husband, daughter and I walked in, there were three young women who were admission counselors lying on the couches looking at the piece," says Nei. "And I thought, 'this is your moment.' As an artist, you don't really get to see people appreciating your work like that. It was so much fun because they were trying to decode what department each word or text line was from."

Her hope for Mile 853 "is that every day people who are in [Jones Hall] all the time could look up and say, 'Oh, look at that, I never saw that before.' And people who are new could just take in the immensity of this crazy dialogue going on at the University. Because [Mile 853 is] a snapshot of this moment right now, in time and space."

The Freshman Admissions Welcome Center Jones Hall is located in 200 Jones Hall. (The U also has a welcome center for transfer and International, situated in 240 Williamson Hall.)

You find a pdf map and guide to public art on the Twin Cities campus, at the Weisman Art Museum.

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