Higher Education Chronicle

A Time and a Place to Gather Stones / Lawrence Biemiller / 30th January 2009

A Time, and a Place, to Gather Stones Together


Lenka Clayton did not leave London and cross the Atlantic Ocean intending to paint tiny, precise numbers on 7,000 loose stones — that idea didn't come to her until later. By the time she began numbering, she had already started a class of freshmen at Alfred University mapping hard-to-map things (like smells) and collecting items that aren't usually collected (secret admissions, photographs of classmates' tattoos, giraffe drawings). She had commissioned a taxidermist to stuff a pigeon and give it a startled look, and she had recreated a barn raising sound by sound.

But it's her "7,000 Stones" project that seems likely to be remembered longest, in part because it's bound up with the curious history of the Steinheim, one of the most unlikely buildings ever to be included on an American college's campus map. Before she left Alfred last month, Clayton had made the Steinheim's history even more curious, and she had entangled hundreds of unsuspecting people in it. Hundreds more, she hopes, will unexpectedly find themselves involved in the months and years to come.

Clayton, 31, is a British artist and documentary filmmaker for whom the word "impish" might as well have been invented. She is slight and has a shy smile that she sometimes accompanies by brushing wisps of unruly hair out of the way. She has worked and exhibited in Europe and Japan, and she sometimes teaches at Central St. Martins College of the University of the Arts London, where she also studied. A while back, she heard about a visiting professorship here at Alfred from a friend who had given a talk at the university, and she decided to apply. The appointment requires some teaching — in her case, a first-year art class — but it comes with an apartment overlooking Main Street in this southern New York town, and it affords its holder plenty of time for research and for making art.

She arrived in August. "The first month I just drove around meeting people and going to auctions and demolition derbies," says Clayton, who was surprised by how easy it was to strike up conversations with local residents. She also discovered the region's Amish community, and the Amish proscription against being photographed immediately caught her attention. So she made two works about the Amish without using a camera.

The first was inspired by an Amish boy she encountered in a barn while she was looking for someone else. The boy was facing down a pigeon he had just captured under a wire basket meant to hang off a bicycle's handlebars. Clayton committed as many details of the scene to memory as she could. Then she went to a local taxidermist and asked him to make a stuffed pigeon with its feathers ruffled, as if in fear. She bought a wire basket and aged it to look like the one she had seen in the barn, and with that she had recreated the pigeon's half of the encounter. The boy she left to the viewer's imagination, aided by the narrative she posted above the work.

The more difficult piece was inspired by an Amish barn raising she went to. She and a friend stood there for over an hour while she again made mental notes, she says. She came away with "a really strong sound memory, of a shape of sound — people hammering and keeping in rhythm and going off rhythm." Soon after, she gathered up recording equipment, sound software, carpentry tools, and wood, and set about creating individual sound tracks to represent what she remembered each barn builder doing. Then she overlaid the tracks to create a 45-minute soundscape, the aural equivalent of a painting of the scene. At her exhibition here last month, you could sit in a solitary wood chair in a brightly lit closet under the stairs and listen to the entire piece.

It was a conversation about the Steinheim with a local historian that started the ball rolling on two other pieces. The Steinheim is a fairy-tale castle — towers, battlements, the works — at the upper edge of the university's hillside campus. Its foundations were dug in the 1870s by Ida Kenyon, wife of the university's first president. She apparently intended to build herself a house but abandoned the project for unknown reasons. Jonathan and Abigail Allen — he was the university's second president, and she taught art — bought the site in 1876 and resumed construction.

According to Laurie L. McFadden, the university's archivist, the Allens had traveled widely and enjoyed visiting European castles, so a castle was what they decided to build. Alfred students, McFadden says, helped the Allens collect local rocks for the building. Legend has it that the structure contains 7,000 or 8,000 stones, all gathered within three miles of the site, and that the elaborately carved interior uses 700 or 800 kinds of wood. Although the Allens named the building the Steinheim, which means "stone home," they lived in an imposing Greek Revival house next door, and the Steinheim was home only to their extensive collection of natural-history artifacts, which filled glass cases in and around the two-story hall in the middle of the building.

Within a few years the Allens decided to expand the two-story Steinheim by adding a three-story tower to the front. McFadden says there were "no architectural plans" — a statement you're likely to believe after an awkward climb up the steep, curving staircase to the third floor — and President Allen "never considered it finished." It was an instant landmark nonetheless, and a popular destination for tourists in southern New York. The exterior looked like it belonged in a Thomas Cole painting or a poem by Lord Tennyson, and the interior was filled with the wonders of an age of discovery — fossils, insect collections, and birds that people would otherwise see only in books. When President Allen died, in 1892, Abigail deeded the Steinheim to the university.

Over time, the museum's holdings expanded. Well-meaning friends of the university donated such souvenirs as Eskimo spears and relics from the Holy Land, and what with one thing and another, the Steinheim began to look quite cluttered. Besides butterflies, seashells, and stuffed animals — the albatross with its wings spread was particularly notable — the museum ended up with baskets, beads, Chinese shoes, coins, pottery, spinning wheels, statuary, and much, much more, including the skeleton of the first woman prosecuted for murder here in Allegany County. In the manner of many 19th-century museums, the Steinheim was a hodgepodge.

In the early 1950s, the university closed the building, which by then was in need of a renovation. It became "a well-known building for students to break into, and a lovers' lane," McFadden says, adding that some of the students who broke in pocketed items from the display cases. Not long after Hurricane Agnes flooded the basement, in 1972, the museum's contents were removed, McFadden says. A few collections went to other university departments or other museums, and the rest were packed away in a house owned by the university. For the next two decades, the Steinheim was used for storage. In 1995 it was renovated to become Alfred's career-services office, with much of the interior preserved.

In the meantime, however, the items stored in the house vanished — statues and all. When Clayton came to the university archives in search of information about the Steinheim's history, McFadden showed her what little remained, including some pottery and a spear. Some of the items have no acquisition number, some have one, and some have two. McFadden says some objects from the museum are known to be elsewhere — two paintings are in a visitors' center, some stuffed birds belong to the biology department, and the mollusk collection went to a Philadelphia museum. "But the rest of the contents are a mystery — if we have 1 percent, that's a lot," she says. "Someone knows what became of all that stuff, but they have their own reasons for not saying."

Clayton came up with a plan. She persuaded the university to declare a general amnesty and asked the public to let her know where items from the collection were so that she could photograph them in their new locations. Nothing would be reclaimed, only documented. "The story of the Steinheim is of a complete human cycle of the effort to understand the world through the collecting, naming, and organization of things," she wrote in a post on a blog she was keeping about her Alfred experience. "Objects were removed from their context, collected together, and displayed. And then the process unraveled backwards. The artifacts were taken, lost, sold, and stolen, dispersing back into the world. But now they carry with them the remnants of a new chapter in their history. An obsolete catalog number is evidence of their having been part of a collection and having once stood in for some part of our history."

The Alfred Sun printed a front-page article about the amnesty program, and announcements were made at football games, but the results were disappointing. "I started getting these telephone calls that Mr. X had this or that — it became kind of negative," Clayton says. "The project came across as kind of judgmental to people."

So she came up with a second plan, in which she would recreate the story of the Steinheim's holdings by assembling, organizing, and dispersing a collection of 7,000 rocks gathered within three miles of the university.

She had a third plan tied to the Steinheim as well. In the university archives she had found sheets of paper on which someone had recorded the contents of each of the museum's display cases, but without signing or dating the sheets and with only the briefest descriptions written in the boxes drawn to represent each shelf — "Dental instruments, intact," "Lindbergh radiogram drawer, empty," "Civil War relics, glass broken, buckle + other items missing," and "? Glass frame missing, everything chewed by mice." Clayton selected one sheet — "2nd floor, front end, center case, window side" — and began gathering items to create her own whimsical, wall-sized display based on the sheet's descriptions and whatever she could borrow locally to match.

She put a gingerbread church and a crude wooden model of a chain saw on a shelf labeled "Arts, intact," and she assigned a deteriorating rubber-band ball, assembled by the fine-arts secretary's predecessor, to "No tag, items in bad shape." A receipt-stuffed travel diary from someone's visit to Beijing was classified with "Chinese books, intact." Where the person who made the original inventory had used ditto marks to indicate additional shelves of U.S. stamps, Clayton chose to see elevens, putting out 11 leaves, 11 baby shoes, even 11 of the stuffed birds from the original Steinheim collection that had survived in the biology department. It's no exaggeration to say that looking at Clayton's quirky, kitschy, faux-Steinheim display was as much fun as visiting any room at the National Gallery of Art.

But it was the "7,000 Stones" piece that attracted attention. She had gathered the stones from the sides of roads, from fields and a creek, from around the Steinheim, and from a graveyard. There were a few shark's teeth thrown into the mix, and a few well-worn pieces of ceramic tile. She had given each rock its own number — black numerals on a white background — and over Thanksgiving she spent three days photographing the stones individually for what she says will be a giant poster. Then she put them all in a pile in the middle of the exhibition space, focused a light on a sign that said "Please take the stones," and opened the doors.

What happened next was a complete surprise. People didn't just take the stones, Clayton found. They searched through them, sometimes for a stone with a pleasing shape or color, but much more often for a number that they liked or that had some particular significance. "People visited the show and sat for two hours looking through the stones for their grandmother's birth year. It's like the stones became the numbers," she says. No. 1 and No. 7,000 were found and taken the first day, although Clayton notes that since all 7,000 numbers were unique, "each was as exactly as rare as the next." It was interesting, she says, "to take something that was free and had no value and give it value.”

But she had given the stones a history, too — a history linked to Alfred, the Steinheim, the Allens, the missing statues, and an impish, creative British artist with unruly hair. "The piece only really existed when people started taking stones away" and carrying them to their own coffee tables and shelves and drawers, Clayton says, but in a sense, the piece exists as much in the telling — in the Steinheim narrative that she found and deftly expanded — as in the carrying.

When the exhibit closed, several piles of stones were still left on the floor. Before Clayton returned to London, she spread them around the places where she had collected stones two months before. "People will find them while they're out walking," she says. They'll see the numbers and wonder what collection the stones once belonged to, and why. And "7,000 Stones" will be complete.