Colorful Serendipity for a School’s Sculpture By Allan Kozinn for The New York Times

The New York Times
Published: April 26, 2013


It may not be in quite the same league as finding the remains of Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, or fragments of Chinese pottery dating back 20,000 years. But last week the discovery of a thousand or more shards of colorful Tiffany glass, stumbled on while clearing the site of a former Tiffany factory for a new school building in Corona, Queens, is expected to give a sculpture commissioned for the school more authenticity than originally hoped for by the agency that ordered it and the artist who is making it.

The work, a large piece — roughly 100 linear feet, broken into four or five hefty segments — by the sculptor and installation artist Rita McBride, will stand in the entrance lobby of P.S. 315, near a large, open staircase leading down to the school’s library. The plan calls for it to be visible from both the library and the street, 43rd Avenue at Ninth Place, when the 1,100-student elementary school opens in 2015. And because the sculpture was commissioned to pay homage to the history of the neighborhood, the piece was designed to use Tiffany glass — although until excavations for the school turned up a mother lode of colorful pieces, Ms. McBride said she was not sure where the glass would come from.

“Archaeology is central to the proposal,” she said of the still unnamed piece in a telephone interview from Germany on Tuesday. “I was interested in the history of the site, and was hoping to evoke some imaginative stories through the actual materials.”

Ms. McBride, who was born in Iowa, studied at Bard College and now lives and teaches in Düsseldorf, specializes in monumental works in a variety of styles and materials.

“I always love going to archaeological museums which have architectural fragments mounted to the walls,” she said. “I enjoy not knowing exactly where they would exist in the original building, or what their functions would have been. So for the school, I’m hoping to mount a modernist frieze — a structure from another era. And I’m excited to be using actual Tiffany glass pieces that were manufactured there.”

The new school building — a $68 million project designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — also uses color in ways that allude to the Tiffany factory, which operated on the site from 1901, when it was built for Louis Comfort Tiffany, to 1932, when he declared bankruptcy. But neither the building nor Ms. McBride’s artwork commemorates other tenants of that brick factory, which has just been razed, among them a bronze foundry, electronics and garment manufacturing companies and, most recently, a halal chicken slaughterhouse.

Tania Duvergne, the director of the Public Art for Public Schools program of the New York City School Construction Authority, said Ms. McBride was selected for the $150,000 commission in a process that was judged by representatives from Ms. Duvergne’s agency and the city’s Departments of Education and Cultural Affairs, and several art professionals.

“We looked at the work of a large pool of artists,” she said. Four finalists were invited to submit project plans.

“One thing we liked about her proposal,” Ms. Duvergne said, referring to Ms. McBride’s preliminary design, “was that it is intended to evoke an archaeological dig, had it taken place at the site, revealing remnants of glass from the Tiffany factory. But this was before we knew that we would find any of the actual glass. She had hoped to find shards of real Tiffany glass from other sources, but we knew it would be a challenge. And when we did find some, we wouldn’t know whether it was actually produced at this site. Now we know.”

As it turned out, when digging began at the site last week, shards of glass turned up in the southwest corner — an area, Ms. Duvergne theorized, that had been a repository for broken or unusable pieces. A historian was dispatched on Monday to see whether the shards were of historical interest and determined that they were not. That afternoon Ms. Duvergne and some of her staff turned up to sift through the dirt in search of pieces for Ms. McBride’s project, which the artist plans to build in New York over the next two years.

“We’ve collected several hundred, perhaps 1,000 pieces,” Ms. Duvergne said after her first day of digging. “The sizes vary from very small to as big as a hand, and though the majority have been green, we’ve also found yellows, golds, unbelievable pinks, blues and purples. We have shards that show the textures he used, the opalescent quality and the intricate detail of his creations. We’re looking for the widest variety, to reflect the amazing variety of Tiffany’s work.”

Ms. Duvergne and her crew returned to the site for what they expected to be one last gathering effort on Tuesday, after which the dirt was to be carted away to a landfill. But Ms. Duvergne arranged to keep the debris in place for a few more days of shard harvesting.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 27, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Colorful Serendipity For a School’s Sculpture.