Painting and Drawing Sol LeWitt

Posted: March 25, 2008

Inventor Thomas Edison said that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Frances Perkins Scholar Martha Martinez '09, a studio art major with a minor in film studies, has discovered the truth of that adage this semester. She and a team of Five College students and local artists have spent several weeks painting a mural designed by American artist Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) at the new federal courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. The courthouse, which was designed by Somerville architect Moshe Safdie and Associates, is scheduled to open in late April or early May.

Located in a hallway leading to courtrooms, the 230-foot mural was designed by LeWitt before he died last year. According to Mount Holyoke art professor Nancy Campbell, "This is a special project not only because LeWitt was a major figure in contemporary art, but also because it was his last project." Campbell and her husband Carl Caivano, who is a visiting lecturer in art at Smith College, supervised the students. They got involved when U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor expressed an interest in having Five College students work on the project and asked if they could put together a team.

The mural's abstract design, which the students and artists executed following detailed instructions by LeWitt, features overlapping curved white lines painted on a black background. "The instructions were like a blueprint," Martinez said. "We saw where each line should go, where it should bend, how much it should curve. The brush sizes to use and the kinds of paint were specified, even how the wall was supposed to be prepared before painting."

Martinez worked on the mural from 9 am to 5 pm Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for five weeks. In the process, she grew to appreciate the meticulous nature of the work. "As I worked on this 230-foot wall with a quarter-inch brush, I learned a lot about practicing attention to detail. I also got over my fear of heights. When you're up on the scaffolding, you focus so much on the wall, you forget how high up you are!"

The courthouse mural in Springfield is one of two LeWitt projects Mount Holyoke students are involved with this year. Julia Wagner '08 has recently been selected to be an apprentice intern for Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, which will open in November at MASSMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. Wagner will join a team of professional artist-installers and interns who, from June through August, will execute artworks according to LeWitt's instructions. The retrospective, featuring more than 100 wall drawings, will remain on view in a restored three-story, 27,000-square-foot historic mill for the next 25 years.

"I first heard about the internship in Nancy Campbell's printmaking class," Wagner said. "As I understand it, I'll be doing everything from sharpening pencils, to prep work, to drawing on the walls." Wagner is a studio art major with a minor in art history who became interested in LeWitt while working on a research project for associate professor of art Rie Hachiyanagi's Body and Space class. Wagner's sculptures made of engineered plywood, paper, canvas, and other materials will be shown in Mount Holyoke's annual Senior Art Majors' Exhibition in May.

LeWitt, whose pared-down geometric sculptures, paintings, and drawings have been shown in museums and galleries around the world, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and studied art at Syracuse University. Many of his projects, like the mural in Springfield, were designed so that others would be involved in the creative process. His "deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings," wrote Michael Kimmelman in the April 9, 2007, New York Times, "established him as a lodestar of modern American art."

Related Links:

Art and Art History at MHC

New York Times Sol LeWitt Obituary

MASSMoCA LeWitt Retrospective

Wikipedia: Sol LeWitt

Guggenheim Museum Art Curriculum Online: Sol LeWitt