Nexus sculpture being fired.

Art installation to mark the occasion of ONU’s sesquicentennial

Ohio Northern University’s year-long sesquicentennial celebration pivots from looking backwards at our history to looking forward into our future on Nov. 5, with the unveiling of a special art installation in Heterick Memorial Library. A ceramic statue aptly named Nexus is a work of art by ONU faculty member and alumnus Luke Sheets, BFA ’95, professor of art and design, who created a piece to represent “our past, our current reality and the future yet to come.”

A nexus is defined as what connects a group in a series. Applied to time, nexuses are infinite—in one direction never-ending links between increasingly smaller increments of time, and in the other expanding ever greater to connect epochs, ages and eons in some semblance of continuity. Fortunately for Sheets, the request from ONU’s Sesquicentennial Planning committee in the spring of 2020 was simply to commemorate this milestone in ONU’s history, not to capture the University’s existence in a single work of art. Yet, an artist’s mind tends to see connections and purpose others miss. For Sheets, that meant looking beyond the 150 individual blocks of clay arranged in a lattice structure, for the larger meaning.

“Nexus incorporates numerous symbolic components. The bricks of the sculpture signify the buildings on campus – our concrete aspect. The light radiating through the sculpture embodies the abstract – our students going out into the world, extending beyond our current shape into the future,” he says.

Diving deeper into the piece, one can see even more ways in which Nexus truly does capture the essence of the University’s existence. First, the overt: 15 rings of 10 blocks stacked upon one another in a staggered lattice pattern literally represents ONU’s 150 years of history. But what isn’t clear from simple observation of the finished product are the parallels between the processes it took to create both.

Sheets indicated the significance of clay as a metaphor for the physical buildings and structures on ONU’s campus. Both campus and Nexus grew sequentially, one piece at a time, beginning with the first. And for Henry Solomon Lehr, the first building block of his university was his faith in God. Sheets paid homage to the role faith has played in ONU’s founding by making each block adhere to the golden ratio, or what Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli referred to in his writings as the divina proportione (divine proportion). As he placed more blocks, a pattern emerged in the form of a ring destined to be completed. The same can be said of ONU in its early years. As the University grew and its direction became clearer, the path for growth and expansion became evident and fulfilled.

Nexus’ initial ring is the most important. It sets the parameters for the structure to come and provides a foundation to build upon. In an era when many colleges and university’s floundered within a decade of inception, surviving one was noteworthy. But the conclusion of one decade is a natural moment for reflection just as much as the start of a next one gives cause to dream. With the first ring complete and isolated from the next, Sheets placed the first clay block of the second ring forward of the one beneath it so that it spanned the void below. He would continue this with each block of Nexus until it grew ring by ring. And while these newly completed rings resulted in Nexus growing taller, the motion represented in Nexus is not up at all, it’s always forward.

As mentioned before, starting a new college or university in 1871 was rife with uncertainty. Sheets’ expertise and experience allows him to understand risk in ceramics, and he made the conscious effort to not play it safe with Nexus. Instead, he introduced challenges and sought solutions the way countless ONU students have done over the years.

“There were several different factors that kept me up at night,” says Sheets. “One is the issue of shrinkage, particularly when the bottom of the piece isn’t continuous. Another was the fact that clay doesn’t like to be thick.”

Taken together, these two challenges make Nexus a scientific achievement almost as much as an artistic one. The issue of shrinkage relates to the physical change that happens to clay when it is fired in a kiln. According to Sheets, clay shrinks by roughly 12 percent. For a vessel with a solid bottom like a bowl or vase, shrinkage is more or less uniform and there is little risk that the structure will be compromised. However, Nexus doesn’t have a solid base. It rests on 10 individual pressure points that gravity doesn’t want to let go of, which could lead to structural failure for a design as heavy and complex as Nexus. Sheets solved the problem by building the entire piece upon a 50 lbs. slab of clay that had the sole purpose of shrinking along with the sculpture to keep everything connected.

Shrinkage is the result of water evaporating from wet clay and a major reason for Sheets other concern. The thicker clay is the more water there is trapped inside and the longer it takes to make its way out of the clay. Yet, a sculpture the size of Nexus—30 inches tall and 150 lbs. when it was wet—needed pieces strong enough to hold the weight above it while still holding its shape. Therefore, Sheets didn’t really have an option with his material. He’d have to change his technique to make successful.

“The trouble with firing thick clay is that the physical water and the chemical water can only leave the surface, and the surface is what gets hot first when you begin heating,” he says.  “If there is any physical water in the center of a piece of clay when the temperature hits 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns to steam, its volume increases 1,700 times and explodes.”

Over 150 years, ONU has had some moments of uncertainty, but at no point was the University in danger of complete instantaneous annihilation—not even in the 60s. Again, skill and expertise provided a way through. By warming the clay up very, very slowly over the course of multiple days, Sheets was able to dry out Nexus and bring its temperature to 1,000 degrees at which point he could bisque fire the piece at 1,850 degrees. From there he allowed it to cool, applied two coats of glaze and fired it again at 2,150 degrees for the final firing.

“I have a tendency to take what I’ve done in the past, and keep pushing it, and I’ve found myself doing it with this. The thickness, the complexity of the piece. I have successfully fired two-inch-thick clay, but they were singular pieces. I never tried to build something from them and assemble it like this. This is something that I have not done before,” he says.

Sheets’ desire to continually push forward in his craft is such a Northern trait, and is another reason—along with his talent—that he was the perfect artist to create the piece that celebrates and commemorates the University’s sesquicentennial. His relationship with ONU as an undergraduate student, alumnus and faculty member spans 30 of Nexus’ blocks. The sculpture is deeply rooted in ONU’s past, present and future, and especially so for the alumni who can see in it how much of their lives have contributed to ONU’s entirety, and for the current and future generations of students who will see themselves in the light radiating from within.

About the Artist
Luke Sheets, BFA ’95, has been a professor of art and design at Ohio Northern University for 16 years and heads the 3D Studio Program. In addition to teaching the University’s 3D studio courses, – 3D Design, Ceramics, and Sculpture – Sheets also leads the Senior Capstone Experience for the art and design students. He has presented his research at both national and international conferences and has participated in international residencies. Sheets’ work is exhibited locally, nationally and internationally.