Elmhurst College: The Ancient Epic and the Atom Smasher

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The Ancient Epic and the Atom Smasher

After Chicago artist Rebecca Wolfram toured Elmhurst College to scout locations for her first campus exhibition, she had few doubts about where she wanted to show her work. Wolfram couldn’t stop thinking about her visit to the College’s Barbara A. Kieft Accelerator ArtSpace, the resting place of a retired 750,000-volt Kevatron proton accelerator.

“I was completely taken with that thing,” she said of the vintage 20-foot-tall atom smasher, a visually arresting glass-and-metal leftover from the space’s former life as a physics lab. “I knew I wanted to do something in that space.”

Wolfram was so inspired that she developed an entirely new body of work to showcase in the gallery. The resulting exhibition, Gilgamesh: A Drawing Installation, is a series of mammoth mixed-media drawings of scenes from one of the world’s oldest written narratives, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The show runs in the Accelerator ArtSpace through March 29.

Wolfram happened to have been reading the ancient Sumerian epic, about a king’s quest for immortality, when she visited the Accelerator ArtSpace and got her first glimpse of the accelerator within. Used in the early days of atomic weapons research at the University of Chicago, the Kevatron was moved to Elmhurst in 1969, and employed by students there for several years before being shut down. It now serves as a sculptural centerpiece for one of the most distinctive college gallery spaces anywhere.

And while the connections between an ages-old Sumerian poem and a scientific relic of the Atomic Age may not be obvious, Wolfram found certain links between the scientific research done with the accelerator and themes found in the epic.

“I started to see parallels. In both cases, people are engaged in a search for essential knowledge about the universe,” she explained. “They are trying to answer big questions.”

In the ancient poem, which dates to around 2000 BCE, the hero Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is so shattered by the death of his friend Enkidu that he undertakes a perilous journey to uncover the secret of eternal life. Eventually, though, he must come to terms with his own mortality and abandon his quest for a god-like transcendence.

Wolfram’s drawings communicate the urgency and energy of Gilgamesh’s story. Her figures are often in motion—running, wrestling, fending off monsters, embracing. Some of the drawings have a sketchy, provisional quality that suggests nothing so much as a storyboard mapping out the narrative turns of one of the world’s seminal action tales.

The panels she created for the Elmhurst show are so large—the longest stretch more than six feet—that Wolfram was unable to hang them together in her small studio. She borrowed floor space in the field house in Chicago’s Douglas Park to lay the panels alongside each other. But not until she installed her work in the gallery at Elmhurst did she see it as a whole.

Wolfram’s Elmhurst show is not her first use of ancient literature as source material. She had previously made a series of 45 drawings inspired by the mother of Grendel, a figure in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. That work was exhibited at the State of Illinois Museum in Chicago and at the Casa de la Cultura in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Gilgamesh drawings represented a formal and stylistic departure for Wolfram, a painter whose work sometimes features vaguely monstrous figures in mysterious or disturbing situations. The Gilgamesh drawings are more straightforwardly illustrative.

“I normally don’t do illustrative work, and illustration was something I was a little uncomfortable with,” she said. “There is a prejudice among artists against the idea of illustration, like it’s not conceptual enough. But I did it anyway.”

A native of Oregon, Wolfram has lived in Chicago since she came to the city to study at the University of Chicago. She was a founding member of the Axe Street Arena, a 1980s collective of politically engaged artists and writers based in Logan Square. The group aimed to bridge art and activism. Their activities included a trip to Nicaragua to meet and exchange ideas with artists there, during the height of the Contra War. Wolfram called her involvement in the collective “a formative experience” but also “exhausting.”

“I think in some ways I am still recovering from the late ‘80s,” she said, with a laugh.

For some 30 years, Wolfram taught English as a Second Language in the City Colleges of Chicago. Her students, she said, came from so many different countries that she felt as if “everybody in the world was there. It was such a rich experience and I learned so much.”

Wolfram is at work on new paintings, preparing for an upcoming exhibition in Mexico City. She said her goal remains the same for every painting she creates.

“I want to make a perfect painting,” she said. Then, sounding very much like an erstwhile English teacher, she good-naturedly corrects her interviewer. “Not the perfect painting. I wouldn’t use the definite article. There’s a big difference. Any work of art is perfect or complete in the sense that nothing about it could be changed without changing its identity. A painting I’ve done is always complete, whether it’s good or lousy.”

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