Artist, Students Use Cardboard and Paint to Reinterpret Brooks Hall Natural History Museum

February 13, 2012 — A wandering woolly mammoth trudges its way across the McCormick Road crosswalk and takes up residence in the University of Virginia's Clark Hall. This creature is the centerpiece in a new Ruffin Gallery exhibit that reinterprets a piece of University history – using only black paint and cardboard.

A group of 12 studio art students from the College of Arts & Sciences known as "The Cardboard Company" having been working with New York artist Tom Burckhardt to construct an artistic interpretation of the Brooks Hall Natural History Museum circa 1900. The museum, which opened in the Victorian Gothic building just east of the Rotunda on University Avenue in 1877 and ceased functioning as a museum in the 1940s, was one of the most impressive and innovative museums of natural history in the nation, complete with a replica of a woolly mammoth on permanent display.

Megan Marlatt, professor of art and faculty adviser for the U.Va. Arts Board, said she and Burckhardt, the board's 2011-12 resident artist, "were looking for something that the students could really interact with." The idea of a reinvented Brooks Hall gallery, inspired by Burckhardt's cardboard scene of an artist's workshop, "Full Stop," and the book "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders," appealed to the pair because it gave a chance for many students to participate in something with which none of them had experience.

"It was something that was specific enough, but also universal enough that everyone could kind of sink their visual teeth in," Marlatt said.

Students with all skill levels and backgrounds had the opportunity to contribute to the piece. "We all have our own styles, but the unifying theme throughout this whole thing is that we are limited by cardboard and black paint," said fourth-year student Shiry Guirguis, a cognitive science major and studio art minor.

The students have been transporting the mammoth they created around Grounds – they have to get inside of it to carry it, sort of like a Trojan horse – to publicize their upcoming Ruffin Gallery installation, "The Brooks Natural History Museum, c 1900; A Creative Interpretation," which opens Feb. 24 and runs through March 30. The opening reception will be "Final Friday," Feb. 24, at 5:30 p.m., preceded by a gallery talk with Burckhardt and The Cardboard Company at 4:30 p.m. There will be refreshments and live music.

The gallery space, which is undergoing final touches this week, will be entirely covered in cardboard and brown paper. David Cook, a third-year studio art major concentrating in printmaking and painting, said Burckhardt "wants to transform the space of the actual gallery. We're creating a brown-on-black alternate reality."

Burckhardt described the style as "almost like walking into a cartoon. Everything's sharpened in a strange way because it's not the color of real life."

Inside the gallery, visitors will encounter a marine dinosaur surrounded by imagined sea creatures and vegetation, a large ostrich poised in mid-run, a dodo bird, a cave full of human skeletons representing evolution and more.

Marie Bergeran, a fourth-year studio art major with a concentration in painting, said she particularly loved the potential of the medium. The same piece of corrugated cardboard could be transformed into the vertebrae of a dinosaur or a palm tree. "What we're learning is you can make anything out of cardboard," she said.

The exhibit plays with the history of Brooks Hall and the idea that museums are very taxonomical and accurate. "I was fascinated with the fact that at the time it pretended to be authoritative in its idea of way the world is," Burckhardt said. He said he aimed to shake up tradition and hybridize the real and the fictional of the museum by including purposeful inaccuracies such as misspellings and anatomical errors in the pieces.

"The role of the artist is to be not a historian, but a devil's advocate for ideas," he said.

The students enjoyed the blending of precision and messiness and greatly anticipate the completion of the exhibit. "The idea of making a museum out of garbage is interesting," Bergeran said. "I just can't wait for the moment when we step inside and it's a new place."

Burckhardt was born and lives in New York City. He has been the recipient of such prestigious art awards as The Guggenheim Foundation Grant, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. His work has been exhibited internationally and has been reviewed in The New York Times, Art in America and The Village Voice. He is represented by Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his last solo exhibition, "Louder Milk" was installed in April 2011.

The U.Va. Arts Board is a student-run board whose mission is to feature an outstanding artist, attraction, performance or exhibition each year in a three-year rotation that includes music, visual arts and drama.

The Cardboard Company – made up of U.Va. students Bridget Bailey, Hannah Barefoot, Bergeron, Susannah Cadwalder, Manya Cherabuddi, Cook, Carmen Diaz, Guirguis, Margaret King, Agnes Pyrchia, Erin Rogers and Cherith Vaughan – welcomes extra hands in the week before the exhibit opens, as well as donations of furniture-packing Knoll cardboard.

— by Kate Colwell and Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

U.Va. Media Relations