September 27, 2011 — The University of Virginia's Runk Dining Hall has been overrun by fish. A school of 14 fish sculptures, constructed largely out of found materials, have turned this on-Grounds eatery into an art gallery.
Nancy Takahashi, who chairs of the School of Architecture's Department of Landscape Architecture and is principal of Hereford Residential College, discovered artist Dan Webster's creations during a chance meeting with his daughter, who works in catering services. Takahashi recognized the dining hall as having potential as a venue to display art by students and members of the community, and when she saw Webster's work, she thought it would fit the setting and be received well by students.
Takahashi has worked with Jerry Trombley, head of Runk Dining Hall, to increasingly incorporate art into the space.
"I feel very fortunate that Jerry is open to doing this, the making of a public space," Takahasi said.
Webster finds inspiration in everyday objects. When the Jackson P. Burley Middle School auditorium started undergoing renovations, he offered to take several rows of seats that were on their way to the landfill off the school's hands. While others saw the seats as junk, Webster looked at the curved, laminated backs of the chairs and saw fish.
To construct the fish, he put two seat backs together with a scoff joint, glued foam onto each side and rasped it down to make a body structure. Then he put fiberglass over the top of the foam as a structural apparatus on which to glue "scales." These scales can be anything, from coins to buttons to thumbtacks to shells, and they fit impeccably together to create the impression of fish in motion. Mounted on bases crafted from old farm disks used to level plowed ground, these sculptures vary in size and, in the case of the fish scaled in quarters, weigh up to 60 pounds.
One piece stands out in particular. To construct this fish, Webster used the insides of computers and circuit boards to suggest the interior workings of a fish. While the other works "concentrated on the exterior of the fish," this piece offers an "inside look," said Webster, who used an iron to bend guitar picks into the shape of scales and knitting needles donated by a manufacturer in Waynesboro to create the fish's spine.
Webster's technical expertise comes from many years of experience. After attaining a degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, Webster taught art for 15 years. He now works as a partner in Nelson Seamless Guttering, but continues to make art in his free time, often devoting an hour a day after work to his projects. While Webster created the fish for his personal enjoyment, he said he is thrilled by the opportunity to display them in the dining hall.
"I'm tickled to death to have them here. I'm just glad I can share them," he said.
The University and general public are invited to view Webster's work at his art show opening in Runk Dining Hall, set for Oct. 16 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The event will include comments from the artist and refreshments.