Illustration of a woman reacting to the CFA Garden.

The Legend of the Garden

(Illustration by Chris Jones, McCoy photo by Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

For sheer magnitude of public art at UNLV, The Flashlight will be tough for future generations to ever top. The 36-foot-8-inch sculpture, installed between the Judy Bayley Theatre and Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall in 1981, is made of 24 fins of three-quarter-inch steel. It weighs 37 tons.

It is, by any measure, a lot of flashlight.

The sculpture, commissioned in 1978, was originally supposed to point skyward, in one sense to mimic the searchlights of the Strip, and in another to recall the flashlights ushers inside those venues would use to direct patrons to their seats.

The project was given to artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, but during the design process, Van Bruggen began to question the light shining into the sky. She thought it clichéd. Authoritarian, even. So the artists ended up flipping the sculpture into the upside-down configuration you’ve known and loved for the past 38 years.

Flashlight sculpture with roses in the foreground.

The Flashlight was commissioned by UNLV in 1978. It weighs 37 tons. (Photo by Aaron Mays/UNLV Creative Services)

Foam cones line the walls of a dark chamber, illuminated at one end by a glow

Robert Schill's anechoic chamber is used to deaden the reflections of electromagnetic waves in testing equipment like antennas. (Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Biggest Blank Spot

When you need to keep electromagnetic waves moving in just one direction, Robert Schill’s anechoic chamber, a 12-by-12-by-12 steel box inside the Science and Engineering Building, is your spot. Covered on the inside by row upon row of foam cones — think a stalactite version of what you’d see in a recording studio — the chamber is designed to cut down the reflections of electromagnetic waves to virtually nothing. That allows research to be done on products like antennae, where a clean signal can go from a source to a receptor. Military tech contractor JT4 has used the chamber in the seven years it has been operational, and at least one Chinese tech company will soon begin testing there.

But that’s Oldenburg and Van Bruggen, two European-born artists who were living and working out of New York at the time. The College of Fine Arts Garden, just down the steps from the Flashlight at the northwest corner of the Alta Ham Fine Arts Building, on the other hand comes from inside UNLV. It is the end result of a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort that came out of Pasha Rafat’s Art in Public Places class in 2008.

“I tried to bring in people from different programs,” Rafat said. “A lot of architecture. Theater, dance, music. The premise of the course is based on collaboration. In classes we put people in mixed groups together. My course is based on space. It's more like architecture. It wasn't really art stuff. I tried to avoid the word ‘art’ because it gives everybody heebie jeebies. The more collaborative the better.”

The garden itself follows Rafat’s philosophy of good public art – it integrates and blends into its surroundings. At the center of the project is a series of concentric steps of stone brought from nearby quarries and topped by Rafat with his own sculptures. Currently, a pyramid sits there, though he expects to change that out in the coming years.

Pyramid-like sculpture in CFA garden.

The CFA Garden was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration that started in Pasha Rafat's Art in Public Places class. (Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

The Biggest Little Measurement

Artist rendering of a gamma ray burst It’s a discovery that earned the journal Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, and the signal that it happened could hardly be any smaller for an event that shook up a slice of the galaxy 130 light years away in the Hydra constellation. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, team became the first to measure the gravitational wave produced by the merger of two neutron stars, with a total mass of nearly three times the mass of the sun. It was at the LIGO observatories in Louisiana and Washington through an apparatus that uses lasers mounted on independent arms. When the waves send ripples through spacetime, the patterns the lasers produce can be compared. “The true change is less than the size of a proton,” UNLV astrophysics professor Bing Zhang said.

The discovery was the first time people observed an astrophysical object in multi-messenger astronomy — the same event being detected in multiple signals, such as gravitational waves, X-rays, gamma rays and more. Zhang was part of a separate team that helped lead efforts to model long gamma ray bursts from the event. The theoretical physicist will continue to work gamma ray bursts, but he is also exploring electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves, and also fast radio bursts — extragalactic signals that haven’t yet been fully explained.

Biggest Man on Campus

Brandon McCoy UNLV men’s basketball has never had a player of pure, outsize, Manute Bol-ian proportions, but it has fielded three 7-footers over the years. Brett Vroman was the first, transferring from UCLA to play center on the 1977-78 and ’78-79 teams before going on to a career in the NBA and European basketball leagues. Elmore Spencer was a first-round pick by the Clippers after a stretch of two seasons at UNLV from 1990 to 1992. The most recent member of the club is Brandon McCoy, who only played for UNLV for one season last year as a freshman before moving on to the Milwaukee affiliate of the NBA G League.

Biggest Mechanical Man

Hubo in a car In 2015, UNLV fielded a team for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The task? Create a robot that could drive a vehicle, open a door and go through, negotiate debris, use a tool to cut a hole in a wall, and six other criteria. UNLV’s team used a Hubo robot, standing 5 feet, 7 inches and weighing 175 pounds, in the competition en route to an eighth-place finish. Hubo still has a home at UNLV, too — in professor Paul Oh’s Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab.

The bottom level, seven blocks form an incomplete square more than 19 feet on its two complete sides, nestled into a hillock. The next level, 12 of them form a square on top, 17 feet, 2 inches long. Then 16 blocks make a square just over 14 feet per side. On the uppermost level, the 12 blocks make an 11-foot square. It weighs more than three tons, all told.

Students frequently use the sculpture as a place to stop and sit between classes, one of UNLV’s outdoor spaces that double as impromptu study halls.

It may be the biggest piece of public art to come out of the class, but it isn’t the only one. The class has also been responsible for the decorated electrical boxes that can be seen along Maryland Parkway. They also created the “Big V” on the front window of the Flora Dungan Humanities building, which cast the lobby in a kind of stained-glass glow until it was removed.

After a brief hiatus, Rafat will be offering the class again in the fall. When subtle, but noticeable improvements come to campus, you may very well have Rafat and a collection of students from disparate backgrounds to thank.

“The important thing is function, and beauty comes out of that. If you moved the object from here to here, it lost its meaning,” Rafat said. “It has to be site-related. All the clues come from the actual environment. They keep thinking the idea of the art is that you make this little watercolor and you put it on top of the fireplace. That's not what I do. I do something quite different. This wasn't put a couple of paintings up. Eveyrthing there is to know about this we want to design. The trees, the rocks, the path, the materials. Every inch of it. If a bird is going to fly by, I want to know what that bird is.”

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