By Catten Ely
Passing by the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library, you may have wondered about the sculpture in the plaza. Where did it come from? What is it supposed to represent?
Reading the plaque located at the base of the sculpture, you learn it's called the Tower of the Cheyenne and was created in August 1972 by sculptor Peter Forakis.
What the plague neglects to tell you, however, is its history.
Since 1966, the University has commissioned public art for its campuses. When the cost of renovation or construction of a new building exceeds $300,000, 1 percent of the funding is set aside for the dedication of artwork selected by a formal University art committee.
Such was the case for Forakis, who is well-known in art circles for his work with geometric forms. Forakis was among the pioneers of a '60s movement that incorporated mathematical concepts in visual art, concepts easily recognized in this piece.
As one of his most celebrated pieces, Cheyenne stands 31 feet high and is made of three welded segments arranged in a zigzagging pattern of vertical and horizontal repetition. The design is intended to mimic the motifs found in Cheyenne Indian handicrafts, particularly rugs and baskets.
While the sculpture is now part of a fountain, it was never intended as a fountain piece.
Crafted of steel known as Cor-Ten, the sculpture is made of an alloy of iron mixed with copper to withstand the elements without any application of a protective coating.
When placed in an aggressively polluted environment, Cor-Ten turns a deep, dark purple-brown. Because the elements in Houston do not allow the structure to develop a protective shield, it has to receive a fresh coat of paint - in its natural color - every five years.
While Cor-Ten is not waterproof, just water-resistant, fountain conditions keep the oxides from compressing into the dense mass.
Despite the limitations of the sculpture in fountain conditions, Forakis decided to plumb the sculpture anyway.
However, upon its completion, the tower could not be installed right away. Construction of a new library wing in the plaza forced the sculpture to reside behind the Physical Plant for three years. Afterward, it was erected in the Butler Plaza in early 1975.
When the pool was built and the pipes inside the sculpture were hooked up, it was discovered that the plumbing was badly executed. Water shot across the plaza instead of coursing gracefully down the sides of the artwork.
The pumps were turned off and have been disconnected ever since.