When SUNY Cortland campus pedestrians enter the Moffett Center lobby closest to Sperry Center, their eyes are likely to be drawn upward. They will meet a massive boat-like sculpture hanging from the lobby ceiling, a work that measures 26 feet in length and gives the impression it is gliding through the air.
The multimedia sculpture, created from scratch by Vaughn Randall, an assistant professor of art and art history, and commissioned by Craig Little, a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor of sociology/anthropology, was added to the Moffett Center lobby in January. Fittingly named “Passage,” it marks one SUNY Cortland faculty member’s artistic ability and another’s generosity.
But even more striking is its beaming symbolism for the entire College community.
“If you look at the piece, it’s going from left to right,” Little said. “It appears to have movement. I think that our lives — as faculty, staff members and, above all, students — that’s what we’re doing. We’re moving through our lives.”
For Randall, a boat suggests a voyage.
“It’s a good symbol of adventure and creativity, and therefore the pursuit of knowledge,” he said.
Many alumni, faculty members and friends of the College have gifted or created artwork for SUNY Cortland. Little’s gift, however, is believed to be the first piece commissioned by a faculty member.
The idea first came to him when the Sociology/Anthropology Department moved from Cornish Hall to a newly renovated section of Moffett Center in 2009. His department’s new location was gorgeous, he thought, but there was a sense of emptiness in the well-traveled passageway.
“I’m walking through that space, and I’m thinking to myself: ‘This would be a great place for a Calder-type mobile,’” said Little, referring to the mobile sculpture work of American artist Alexander Calder.
His interest in art was spurred by his wife, Elaine. She developed a deep artistic appreciation during her retirement, even opting to audit courses through SUNY Cortland’s Art and Art History Department.
“I can imagine that absent the connection with my wife, I could walk through that space and never look up and think: ‘That would be a great place for something,’” Little said.
It became clear early on that an artistic centerpiece would require a financial backer, so Little decided to fund it. He approached Charles Heasley, the chair of the Art and Art History Department, and asked for a suggested artist.
“My thought was, ‘If I’m going to commission something, I want to commission a Cortland artist,’” Little said.
Enter Randall, a woodworker and an artist who works primarily with cast iron.
The two men discussed the possibilities and Randall sent Little sketches based on their conversations. The patron-artist relationship, both men said, was impeccable.
"Passage," the new sculpture in Moffett Center,
measures 26 feet long and 125 pounds.
“He let me have carte blanche, basically free rein, over everything artistic,” Randall said.
Still, the labor wasn’t easy. Randall worked two months worth of 10-hour days during the summer on the project, regularly re-designing and re-cutting wood.
“Any long process, you start out with this brilliant idea in your head,” said Randall. “Then you have to actually bring it into reality and do the hard work, make some mistakes and fix the mistakes as you go.”
He used four different types of wood, fabric and steel in the process and constructed the sculpture “like a high-end wooden kayak,” because it would hang from the ceiling. Despite a boat hull, paddles and an airplane wing, the piece weighed only 125 pounds.
Transporting the sculpture, which was built in separate pieces, required a trailer. It took four hours for Randall, Preston Marye, the technical director for the Performing Arts Department, and Jenn McNamara, an assistant professor of art and art history, to elevate it.
And now Little, a SUNY Cortland faculty member since 1972, has offered the final product as a gift to the Cortland College Foundation.
“In terms of professional opportunity, in terms of human interactions with my colleagues and students, this place means a lot to me,” he said.
Although a formal dedication and reception will take place in April, both Little and Randall have spent time in the Moffett Center lobby where the sculpture hangs, watching people enter the building.
Immediately, eyes move to the ceiling.
“If I make someone stop and think for five seconds,” Randall said, “then I’ve done my job.”