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A taconite boulder with a reflective plate.

One of the seven rocks that make up the Garden of Iron Mirrors public sculpture on the Twin Cities campus.

Garden of Iron Mirrors reflects past and present

New public art on TC campus honors history and future of renovated Education Sciences Building

By Pauline Oo

December 21, 2007

If you've ever been to England, you may have made the trip to see Stonehenge--that eyebrow-raising ring of about 30 upright stones, each more than 10 feet tall. Closer to home, on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, there is the Garden of Iron Mirrors--a sculpture of seven massive boulders reminiscent of Stonehenge.

"There's definitely an inspiration from ancient rock formations, Japanese and Chinese landscape design, as well as my own practice using mirrored and reflective surfaces," says Andrea Stanislav, U assistant professor of sculpture, of her commissioned piece. Garden of Iron Mirrors is made up of two formations beside the renovated and recently opened Education Sciences Building--three in the back garden overlooking the Mississippi River and four on the grassy knoll on East River Road.

Each 10-ton taconite stone from Minnesota's Iron Range is placed the way it is for more than beauty's sake. For example, the mirror-polished stainless steel plates on some of them serve as metaphors of the building's current purpose--enlightenment and education of children--and of knowledge and learning at the University of Minnesota in general. The formation of rocks on the grassy knoll is patterned to the points of a compass: The stone facing east reflects sunrise and the one facing west reflects sunset, while the north and south rocks have polished surfaces that reveal the brownish swirls of the iron-bearing taconite inside them. "As far as rocks go, they have been aged--these rocks are over two billion years old," says Stanislav. "For me, [the polished surfaces] are like looking into this window of the past. Aesthetically, too, they are an echo of the river next to it ... the rocks are not just an ornamental sculpture, but a space that people could engage with and spend time at."

A cast iron rock will be installed inside the building in mid-February, just in time for a public unveiling of the Garden of Iron Rocks in the spring.

Taconite and iron
Edward Wilson Davis was known as the "father of taconite." The University professor was regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on the processing of iron ore and taconite. In 1946, he received a patent for the development processes that would convert taconite into iron ore. In 1955, his taconite pellet process allowed for the use of lower-grade iron ore and breathed new life into Minnesota's iron range.

The Renaissance Revival-style Education Sciences Building originally housed the Mines Experiment Station. It was designed in 1923 by state architect Clarence Johnston, Sr., and in time became the Mineral Resources Research Center--the birthplace of the taconite refining process. (see sidebar) The University began remodeling the 62,000-square-foot building, tucked in the far northwest corner of the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, in spring 2005. (The renovation was a finalist for "Redevelopment/Extensive Renovation" in The Business Journal's 2007 Best in Real Estate awards.) Elements of its past, such as industrial tools and machines and its skylight atrium, have been retained. Pipes and valves are exposed along the high ceilings, as are steel-support beams. The building currently houses three College of Education and Human Development units: the Department of Educational Psychology, the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, and the Center for Early Education and Development.

"It's a very pleasant place to work in," says Kristen McMaster, University assistant professor of special education, whose office was formerly in the nearby Burton Hall. "I like the layout and openness to it--the upper levels are very conducive to interacting, for example--and I also like the blend of old and new."

Education Science Building
The Education Sciences Building on East River Road in Minneapolis.

For Stanislav, the artist, the Garden of Iron Mirrors came to her very quickly. "It was one of these ideas that come to you very, very late at night, or I think at this point, it was very early in the morning," she says. The Chicago native found not only "excellent specimens" of taconite during her rock-finding expedition at Cliff's Erie mine near Virginia, Minnesota, but gained a greater appreciation of her host state.

"It was my first time in a mine, and it was really an amazing and very educational experience for me," she says. Garden of Iron Mirrors is, in a way, her tribute to Minnesota's landscape.

"I would like people to go away from this sculptural installation with regard and further understanding of the location and the building's history," she adds. "And I want them to also have a beautiful physical experience that adds to their day."