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Walking the hypotenuse

by Kate Pond ‘61

I am walking down a city street with my scruffy dog Whiskers; she marches along at a good clip, making smell stops, and then abruptly veers off at a diagonal toward a new, better smell.

On good days, my creative mind works that way too. I am a sculptor working with steel to build large, site-specific public pieces. I need free-flowing creative thoughts to generate ideas for the sculptures. If I am lucky, while my mind works in one direction, a fortuitous event pushes me onto another slant, along an unexpected hypotenuse.

Once, I was driving north on Interstate 89 in Vermont, pondering an idea for a sculpture near the Canadian border. As I passed a sign saying “45 degree latitude, halfway between the north pole and the equator,” the idea of a 45-degree, right triangle appeared in my mind in clear geometric precision. Knowing that the equinox sun’s angle to the earth at that latitude is 45 degrees, I laid the triangle on the ground and raised one leg of it to make a 45-degree angle to the ground—the gnomon for a rudimentary sundial. Working with the 8-inch-diameter steel pipe to form the angles came later.

In 1993, this idea became Zig Zag, in­stalled at the Colby Curtis Museum in Stanstead, Quebec—and the beginning of a series of five sun-aligned sculptures called the World Sculpture Project.

My plan was to follow a geographic triangle of sites from Stanstead, Quebec, to Oslo, Norway, to Honolulu, Hawaii. In Honolulu my archaeologist daughter led me to the ethno-astronomer Rubellite Kawena Johnson and her research on ancient Hawaiians’ sun-aligned structures. One of Johnson’s papers, documenting the two times of the year when the sun is directly overhead in Ha­waii, played a central role in my piece All One, installed at the University of Hawaii’s Kapiolani campus in 2002.

Earlier, in 1996 I did Solekko (“sun’s shadow”) at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo. Concerned that the museum might move my sculpture after a few years, I made it irrevocably site-specific: I designed a conical structure aligned to create no shadow when struck by the summer solstice sun at precisely Oslo’s latitude.

When I work on a proposal, I set the scene so ideas can arrive in my mind. “Be there at your desk so the muses can visit!” was the gist of Norman Mailer’s comment in a letter he sent to my writer husband. Following that advice, I work daily on drawings of shapes I see in my dreams. After a month’s worth of these drawings and ideas in my journal, I might identify a theme with which to begin. I stopped drinking alcohol more than 25 years ago, which helps me with clear early-morning thinking; after a short yoga routine and meditation, I might start by shaping cardboard into a sculptural idea. Within a few days, I have several new ideas to critique and ponder.

I walked many hypotenuses and faced many challenges before I finished the World Sculpture series. For example, how could I ask a local Hawaiian welder, whose pidgin dialect was hard to understand, to do it my way when he wouldn’t take directions from a woman? In Sendai, Japan, I realized that it was considered rude to look directly into others’ eyes; averting my eyes and slightly nodding worked better.

The most difficult challenge was finding a site and a sponsoring school or museum in New Zealand. After three years of following unfruitful leads, I put a notice on my Web site. Within weeks I received an e-mail from a Kiwi, Lew Bone: “Mapua is a perfect site for your sculpture project. Would you like our help in finding a sponsor?” After three visits and many more zigs and zags of ideas, Telling Stones was installed in 2007 at Mapua School in Nelson, New Zealand.

Some ideas for celestial alignments at Telling Stones had begun back in the files of Rubellite Johnson. Aware of the Polynesian connection, I discovered that ancient Hawaiians and some present-day Maori mark similar seasons called, respectively, Makahiki and Mata­riki. One of the Telling Stones alignments marks the rising of the Pleiades, or what the Kiwis call the Matariki, during the winter season in June.

Sometimes, whether for my dog Whiskers or for me, creativity means circling back.