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Words To Live By
Dean B. Ellis Library, Arkansas State University
Jonesboro, Arkansas, January 1-March 5, 1999

"Whosoever strives unceasingly upward can be saved." –Goethe

I recognize my work to be no more or less than a record of an ongoing effort to understand myself in relationship to the world around me. I believe that, in essence, every free-thinking individual is involved throughout his or her life in a similar undertaking. As long as this work continues, there is a striving upward. The only thing that separates the effort of the artist from that of others is the public nature of the artist's endeavor.

This project is an attempt to address this basic aspect of the human condition by integrating a passage from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust into the structure of the Dean B. Ellis Library at Arkansas State University. Anyone familiar with Doctor Faust, Goethe's scholarly protagonist, will appreciate the appropriateness of a library building as the setting for such an installation. It is Faust's disenchantment with book learning – "Poor fool, with all this sweated lore, I stand no wiser than before" – that makes him vulnerable to Mephistopheles' persuasions to put down his books and seek knowledge of the world through direct experience of its pleasures. In his quest for an all-encompassing understanding of the human condition, Faust often takes the wrong path – "For man must strive, and striving he must err" – and falls into despair, but the ultimate message of the drama, epitomized by the quotation borrowed for this project, is that man is redeemed by his aspirations.

The specific location for the project is the southwest corner of the library, where a rounded window on each of the seven stories look out onto the old Kays Field. One flashing-arrow sign is placed near the window on each floor. Rather than pointing horizontally toward some product or service as is normally the case, each sign is stood on its side with its arrow flashing upward. Each illuminated sign bears one word, the quotation ascending upward through the structure and, by implication, beyond its physical bounds. The words appear on both faces of the signs so that the quotation can be seen and read either in its entirety from outside the building or incrementally from within.

Why the flashing-arrow sign? In many parts of America, stretches of commercial highway are cluttered with these cheap yet effective means of advertising. They are so commonplace that, despite their flashiness, they have become, in a strange sense, invisible. One of my hopes for the project is to recharge these half-forgotten objects by reorienting them from the horizontal to the vertical and by surrealistically transplanting them from their normal, noisy roadside environment to the unexpected surroundings of a research library. It is also my intention, by using the vernacular and familiar, to engage any and all persons visiting the library, in itself a democratic symbol. In addition to their expected function of selling worldly goods, these signs are often used for inspirational or instructional purposes by church ministers, who seem to have access to an endless supply of "words to live by." It was especially this use of the signs that inspired the project.

One of the wonderful qualities of the borrowed quotation, which Goethe himself identified as a key passage in the play, is its flexibility. Like all of Faust, it is open to interpretation. What does it mean to "strive upward"? What does it mean to "be saved"? There are no single answers to these questions. Indeed, the answers must be different for each individual. The quotation might apply to any human endeavor, be it spiritual, intellectual, or physical. Goethe's stated intention was to keep the play undogmatic so that each reader might discover his or her own sense of being and destiny therein. With this project, my own intention is to stay true to the spirit of Goethe's text, allowing the quotation's meaning and effect to remain dependent upon the relationship of the individual viewer to it. As Goethe says, speaking through the character of the Comedian in the Prelude: "Each loves the play for what he brings to it."