Stacked plastic discs create an art sculpture in a Penn State Behrend tree line.

'Colorwalk' project adds to Behrend's fall landscape

Artist Lauren Herzak-Bauman has stacked more than 8,000 plastic discs in a tree line outside the Reed Union Building.

Penn State Behrend’s plastics engineering technology program has the largest academic plastics-processing lab in the country, and the 10,300-square-foot facility has produced its share of impressive projects. The latest work, undertaken in collaboration with the college’s arts administration program, might take the cake: a public art project.

As part of Penn State’s Campus Arts Initiative, Cleveland-based sculptor Lauren Herzak-Bauman used the lab to create, mold and fabricate the materials needed for “Colorwalk,” the site-specific art project she installed outside Penn State Behrend’s Reed Union Building. The project features thousands of plastic discs stacked in colorful pink vertical bars, which were spaced throughout a tree line.

“The location really inspired the project,” Herzak-Bauman said. “I knew I wanted to work with multiples, and I knew I wanted to create some kind of color gradient. During my very first visit to campus, I noticed that tree line, and I found it kind of striking how those tall trees moved through the ground. It just continued to grow on me, and then I sort of realized that pink would be a stunning and striking color on campus.”

Funded by Penn State’s Strategic Plan Seed Grant program, the Campus Arts Initiative is a cross-disciplinary project that aims to create site-specific visual art to engage communities in the spaces where they live and work. Eight Penn State locations, including Penn State Behrend, were selected to receive artwork in January. The artist collaborators were selected from nearly 160 applicants.

The Behrend project is unique in how it achieved the cross-disciplinary mission of the Campus Arts Initiative. Arts administration students Olivia Coghe, Jacob Jobczynski and Dalton Dougherty assisted with the selection of the artist. Dougherty also helped document and promote the project.

Plastics engineering technology faculty members and several students from the School of Engineering – John Lutz, Nate Bailey, Rebecca Olanrewaju and Martina Mandella – worked alongside Herzak-Bauman, fabricating the plastic discs.

“It’s been so cool to be a part of a project this size,” Dougherty said. “It’s been interesting to hear the feedback from the plastics folks and see how you can use their materials to make artwork.”

For Herzak-Bauman, a ceramic-based artist by trade, the project has been a bit out of her comfort zone. She adapted, however.

Cleveland Artist Lauren Herzak-Bauman works in the Penn State Behrend plastics lab.

Cleveland-based sculptor Lauren Herzak-Bauman manipulates plastic while working in Penn State Behrend's plastics processing lab. As part of Penn State’s Campus Arts Initiative project, Herzak-Bauman used the lab to create, mold and fabricate the materials needed for “Colorwalk,” the site-specific art project she installed on Penn State Behrend’s campus in early November.

Image: Penn State Behrend

“I’ve been a stranger in a strange land,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot with Josh (Lutz), who has been wonderful. I’m not exactly sure how he felt about spending the week with an artist, but he has been so patient and helpful in this process.”

The process has not been without its bumps. Initially, Herzak-Bauman planned to use an existing mold and the lab’s plastics extrusion machine to create the materials for “Colorwalk.”

That proved to not be possible, so Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of engineering, created a new part, which was used to fabricate the discs. The finished installation features more than 8,000 stacked discs, which are arranged on about 200 vertical bars.

It was a time-consuming process, since the discs were produced with polylactic acid (PLA). The plant-based polymer is more environmentally friendly than other plastics, but it also takes more time to cool.

Bailey, Olanrewaju and Mandella spent several evenings and weekends in the lab, molding the discs. It took more than 80 hours to fabricate the discs.

“One thing about my work is that there’s always a bit of tedium involved, but it’s just kind of par for the course,” Herzak-Bauman said.

The vertical bars were installed in early November, adding a slash of color to the campus landscape.

“That’s when it became really magical for me,” Herzak-Bauman said. “Part of the project is about elevating the visibility of the arts on campus. I see this piece as doing that, but it’s also about making art very accessible to people. There are people who are going to see this piece who would never think of stepping into a gallery. I just love that it will be available to a more diverse audience.”

A meet-the-artist program with Lauren Herzak-Bauman will be held at the "Colorwalk" site, outside Penn State Behrend's Reed Union Building, at 11 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 11. Herzak-Bauman will return to campus that evening for an artist's talk at 5 p.m. in the Metzgar Center lobby.