Arts, Faith and Humanities

For the Birds (and Other Species)

Written by Mike Thee

July 13, 2015

a bird perched atop a tree branch with yellow flowers

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Have you seen them yet? If not, you should. 

Over lunch someday, take a stroll through the garden behind the Admin Building. There you'll find a series of new installations called "Habitat Sculptures." There's a total of 10 sculptures located throughout the garden, each the handiwork of students in the "Sculpture II" class taught by Trung Pham, S.J., assistant professor of Fine Arts. 

The recently installed sculptures blend almost imperceptibly into the landscape, and that's how it's meant to be. While the works are meant to be pleasing to the human eye, they are created first and foremost for other species. 

"The students created these works of art to provide a friendly environment for wildlife such as birds, insects and bees to dwell and to thrive in the gardens at Seattle University," explains Father Pham. 

He says the undertaking was inspired by Laudato Si , Pope Francis' then-forthcoming encyclical on the environment. "I designed the project for students to engage in the current situation (of climate change) and asked the question, 'How can an artist contribute to solve this environmental crisis?'" 

"This project allows students to deeply think about how human's activities have impacted the earth and how human creativity and imagination can bring about restoration, preservation and regeneration of the earth's beauty." 

Each sculpture is designed for a specific species or group of species. Helpful signage sheds light on the sculptures' intended inhabitants and purposes-"Raccoon Picnic Safegrounds," "Bees Hotel," "Stairway to Treetop," and "Hummingbird Swing," to name a few. 

In creating the sculptures, Father Pham and his students worked closely with the Grounds Department. The class was visited by Janice Murphy, integrated pest management coordinator in the Grounds Department, who presented on what kinds of species reside on campus and particularly in the garden behind the Admin Building. Students did research on the optimal designs for accommodating those species and locations in the garden. They used a variety of materials for the sculptures, including wood, bamboo, grasses, copper wire, recycled tin cans, Mason jar lids and hemp string.

"I really appreciated the thoroughness of Father Pham's approach to this project," says Murphy. "The results are so creative and thoughtful and add an interesting element to the beautiful garden behind the Administration Building. It's a very unique way of bringing our attention to the natural world that is all around us, even in our very urban environment."

"Habitat Sculptures" continues Seattle University's longstanding leadership in ecological stewardship. The university's grounds were designated a Wildlife Sanctuary by the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Department in 1989, making it the first institution in the state to be recognized as such. 

While it's the birds and the bees and other species that will get the most out of the sculptures, SU's students have likewise benefited from the project. "This is a unique opportunity for students to display their work outside of gallery space and to think about making art for the well-being of others (humans and other species)," says Father Pham. "In this interdisciplinary project they learned how to get involved in scientific research, get permission from the local authority, think about environmental justice, work with different kinds of materials, put together a convincing proposal and make it aesthetically pleasing."

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