The unveiling of Nina Hole’s last sculpture on April 16, was nothing short of spectacular! The event was set to begin at 8:30 p.m., but the main event did not commence until just after 9:30 p.m., when the workers who had built the sculpture began removing the large pins that had been holding the coverings in place.
The unveiling of the sculpture, however, was not the whole performance. Craig Hartenberger, director of the project said, “We like to think that the performance begins when we get here.”
The performance truly did begin when Hartenberger and his team arrived, if not before. Before the project even started, students became curious, wondering why a large tent was being pitched outside Pao Hall. As the building process began, signs arose informing students about what was going on, and some students were able to sign up to participate in the building process.
Over the course of about three weeks, Hartenberger and others worked to build this fire sculpture, which is the last of its kind as the artist, Nina Hole, passed away just weeks before construction began. The process began by laying out the fireboxes and stacking the firebrick base. The sculpture was then constructed with J-shaped slabs stacked alternating in direction to create a strong form as well as the appearance of windows. After this, time was spent patching as many surface cracks as possible, before adding coats of terra sigilata, and wrapping the sculpture in insulating fiber.
Once the sculpture was wrapped, the firing began. This process involved using a propane burner on the first day in order to dry the sculpture evenly, and burning wood starting late on the second day to raise the temperature quickly. On the evening of the third day, the sculpture was to reach a peak of 1100° C (2012°F) before being unwrapped.
As the fiber was removed, Hole’s final sculpture was revealed to a crowd of onlookers, still glowing from the heat. A mixture of salt and sawdust was tossed onto the sculpture both to add more to the surface and to enhance the performance with flames and sparks that looked like glitter.
Lindsey DeBoer, a freshman in Exploratory Studies who attended the event, said of the unveiling, “It was not what I was expecting at all because there were so many people there.” DeBoer added, “My favorite part was when they threw sawdust and salt, and the fire was huge, and then it looked all sparkly.”
Not the first of its kind, Hole’s final fire sculpture was inspired by the same ideas that inspired her previous fire sculptures, which she had been building for about 25 years. Hole was inspired by the shapes of houses and churches, which she considered representations of how a person is or how a person acts. The sculpture Hole designed for Purdue was a combination of the forms of houses and Danish churches.
The sculptures’ unconventional use of clay is also a noteworthy aspect of Hole’s designs that make them unique. Though clay is typically used indoors on a small scale, Hole’s fire sculptures are created outside, on a very large scale. These sculptures are also fired faster than typical ceramics, and unveiled, rather than cooled in a traditional manner.
Hartenberger said, “It’s a familiar material, sort of expressing in an unfamiliar way to do unfamiliar things.”
Before the project was complete, Hartenberger wanted to be certain that everyone involved remembered one thing, “I just think it’s really important to remember that Nina is the reason all of this is happening. Even though she is not physically here with us now, she is the reason for all of this.”