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All great art starts with a seed.
It's what you do with the seed, stained-glass artist Tom Holdman contends, that matters. "You say, 'Is this a good seed?' As an artist, we then have to solve the issue: How do we translate the idea visually to give it justice?"
That's how Holdman, CEO of Holdman Studios in Lehi, began the Roots of Knowledge stained-glass project 12 years ago, before bringing it to the office of Utah Valley University president Matthew Holland. The partnership allowed the piece to grow into a sprawling, colorful, intricate and permanent installation at UVU's library, to be unveiled Friday, Nov. 18, for the university's 75th anniversary.
The Roots of Knowledge project spans centuries of learning and innovation throughout the world, beginning with a to-scale depiction of Methuselah, one of the oldest trees on Earth. Each of the 26 columns one for every letter of the alphabet features important moments and figures in history that helped shape cultural, scientific and philosophical advancements for humanity. In terms of size, the work itself was a huge undertaking, spanning nearly 200 feet in length, 10 feet in height for the middle portion and bookended by two 30-foot-tall end columns. Despite its enormousness, the project demonstrates an elaborate attention to detail by including hundreds of stories per column. In one panel, Thomas Edison reaches for a star from Van Gogh's "Starry Night"; in another, children hold hands and play "Ring Around the Rosie" while a rat representing the Black Plague looks on. Small surprises, such as a $5 bill from 1777, a depiction of the "Star Trek" Enterprise and an image of local philanthropist Gail Miller, also pepper panels throughout the work.
Holland saw the project as a perfect opportunity to express UVU's mission of student success and core values.
"We're a serious institution of higher learning, and this is the creative capturing of some of the most significant things that have happened," he said. "We talk about being inclusive; it sweeps across time and space, not taking on any one narrative or image. It's the ultimate engaged-learning project."
The $3 million installation, funded by private donors, is designated not only as an art piece for the university, but also as a tool to marry a variety of disciplines in learning. UVU has partnered with the Utah Education Network to create a curriculum surrounding the Roots of Knowledge windows for K-12 students, including field trips to the installation and online educational programming.
Because of the scale and scope of the project, students who view the installation "can't help but learn something," said Kate McPherson, the university's honors program director and professor of English. "Faculty in any discipline can bring their students to the window and send them on a treasure hunt. The discovery process is the most exciting part; to make these connections between past and present is exciting for any teacher," McPherson said.
McPherson has turned the Roots of Knowledge into a writing assignment for her students, who are creating encyclopedia entries for each column of the installation. Viewers will be able to access the entries through an accompanying app to help them understand each element of a specific panel. McPherson says her students enjoy being involved in the project. "Not every student loves a writing assignment, but they like the idea that something they do for a class has real application."
Wayne Hanewicz, director of integrated studies at UVU, says the project crosses every discipline and feels like "home."
"I've taught at five universities, and I've never seen a university engaged in something like this, where the faculty and students work so intimately together and produce something so beautiful," he said.
Along with 26 faculty members and 40 professional artists involved in the consultation and production of the project, the Roots of Knowledge installation has involved more than 350 students in a variety of capacities. Some, like McPherson's students, contextualized the project through written assignments, others working on the development of the app. Dallin Orr, a 2016 UVU grad with a degree in illustration and a minor in art history, initially became involved as an intern at Holdman Studios before he was hired full-time as an artist while still a student. The experience has given Orr something he couldn't learn in a classroom.
"As an art student, most of my work was very individual, and [Roots of Knowledge] was extremely collaborative," he said. "It was really fun to get to know people with different strengths and bring out the best in each other and make the project as good as we could all make it."
Though Roots of Wisdom looks back throughout time for inspiration, the project represents a step forward for UVU. Holland says the installation is the perfect way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the "little vocational school from 1941."
"We're going to build off this in a way that's grand and has world scope. We want to be connected to our local community and service its needs well, but we want to do it in a way that will resonate all over the world," Holland said.
For Holdman, the Nov. 18 deadline doesn't worry him. "As an artist, you never finish an art piece," he said. "You just run out of time."
He admits, though, that it's hard to complete a project that depicts the world when its future is uncertain. While the last column features visions of a technologically enhanced city, the focus for Holdman has its roots in the natural world.
"It's about the 'Tree of Hope' its trunk and branches look like a hand, and the leaves are vivid orange, yellow, red," he said. "It's as if that hand is holding a torch for humanity, and we myself, Matt Holland and UVU are actively saying we have hope; let's do something about it."
Holdman, a graduate of UVU himself, wishes future artists see the Roots of Knowledge windows and are inspired to create "good art."
"I firmly believe, no matter who you are or where you come from, everyone will have moments of genius," he said. "What we are encouraging is that you need to do something about it."
Roots of Knowledge Open House
Meet the artists behind The Roots of Knowledge, a nearly 200-foot-long stained-glass mural created by Holdman Studios to be installed in UVU's library, and explore this one-of-a-kind artwork that chronicles through 80 panes of glass humanity's pursuit of knowledge through the ages.
When • Friday, Nov. 18, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where • Utah Valley University Library, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem
More information • rootsofknowledge.com
By the Numbers
1,400 square feet of glass
200 feet long
60,000-plus pieces of stained glass
10-plus years in the making
$3 million installation, funded by private donors