Walking in the Solar System

By Connor Cummiskey

Next fall, students will be able to walk the length of our solar system without the hassle of space travel. Astronomy and Ceramics II classes are collaborating to make a scale model of our solar system to be displayed in the Ceresco Prairie Conservancy.

“This project is really a collaboration on many levels,” says Associate Professor of Art Mollie Oblinger. “The separate planets they produce will come together to form one cohesive artwork and are based on information provided to us by Assistant Professor of Physics (Leah) Simon’s Astronomy class. Physical Plant and Professor of Biology (George ‘Skip’) Wittler have also been consulting on the planet walk. This is an outdoor public work and a unique experience for students in both classes to work together on creating.”

Each planet will be represented by a hemisphere that will be placed along a path which students and community members can walk. Each dome will have a sign to inform walkers about different aspects of the size of the planet and its distance from Earth.

“My students are making the planets the same way we make most of the bowls for the Empty Bowls fundraiser each year,” says Oblinger. “Students are forming the clay around a large half-sphere plaster mold. Students are texturing the clay and doing numerous glaze tests to try to capture the individual details of each planet.”

Oblinger explains that there are a few challenges to a project like this, one being simply the size. While all the domes should be about the same size, the goal of the installation is to instill in walkers the vast distance that our solar system covers, according to Simon.

“We are working on a larger scale for this project, and that alone is a new challenge for the students,” Oblinger says. “The scale demands that the students work together even though each student is responsible for their own planet. We are also working with some new glazes and new techniques this semester. Students are experimenting and sharing those with each other so everyone in the course can use and benefit from the discoveries.”

Even the location offers challenges for the sculptors, Oblinger says. Because the works will be outside on on the prairie, the artwork will have to weather a lot.

“We live in a harsh climate,” Oblinger says. “Wisconsin’s freeze/thaw cycles make outdoor ceramic work challenging. Additionally, we have prescribed burns on the prairie. I have consulted with experts in the ceramic industry, but there remains some uncertainty. We hope this walk survives for many years and can be used as a teaching tool, but it may evolve and change just like our prairie.”

Simon hopes that if the students learn nothing else, they should at least learn how important the liberal arts interdisciplinary practices are here at Ripon.

“We are trying to make connections across the different disciplines of science and art,” says Simon, who is chair of the physics department. “The idea with building one these things, which are sometimes called planet walks, is to give the walkers a sense of the scale of the solar system.”