If you know where to look, fascinating nuggets of art, history and culture abound at the University of California, Irvine. From cloned redwood trees to underground comics to a deadly scarf, UCI is a repository of the wild, weird and wonderful. In this ongoing series, we spotlight “hidden gems” around campus.
Road maps of the past
Long before Rand McNally, Thomas Guides and MapQuest, there were Justus Danckerts and Arnoldus Montanus. Along with other early mapmakers, these 17th-century Dutch cartographers guided travelers and helped shape perceptions of the world. Today, their fascinating renderings hang in UCI’s Humanities Studio as part of a $3.5 million collection of historical maps, botanical illustrations and portraits donated by art dealer Graham Arader. The stash is among several gifts Arader has made to various universities, under the condition that the artwork be accessible to students. UCI’s multi-room exhibit includes Audubon-style depictions of birds, a Lewis & Clark diagram of the western U.S., renowned cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ stretched-out view of America and Montanus’ engravings of life in the New World. Another highlight is Danckerts’ delightful map of early New England, which features drawings of local animals, forts and a 1600s version of Google Maps’ street view. “I do a whole lecture on Danckerts’ piece in my Picturing the World class,” says School of Humanities Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele.
Zoom-Zoom meets Zot! Zot!
In the 1930s, soapbox derby cars were typically homemade affairs built from a hodgepodge of orange crates, metal scraps and wagon wheels. No more. Today’s gravity-powered go-karts feature space-age materials, Formula One suspensions and wind-tunnel-tested aerodynamics. Consider UCI’s Buck Rogers-esque downhill racer. Sleek and silver with skinny wheels, the low-slung contraption was designed by UCI mechanical & aerospace engineering students in partnership with Mazda (Zoom-Zoom) and the Art Institute of Orange County. Equipped with four-wheel steering, the one-person vehicle won “most innovative” honors against motorless cars created by Porsche, Bentley and other automakers at the 2007 Extreme Green Race near Lake Tahoe. It’s now on display in the Engineering Gateway lobby, along with a single-seat electric race car – also developed in collaboration with Mazda and the Art Institute of O.C.
Undercover Escher knockoff
In a rooftop lair that features hobbit-level doorknobs, piles of old chairs and a helium balloon kit, a giant clone of artist M.C. Escher’s “Metamorphosis II” stretches along two walls. It was created in 1970 by a pair of fledgling social sciences professors, Jean and Charles Lave, to decorate their new home in Turtle Rock. “We had no furniture, no art and not much money, so we made a 50-foot-long beanbag couch, painted the living room purple and fashioned the Escher in our garage, guided by slides of the original work projected onto sheets of hardboard,” Jean Lave says. When finished, the project wrapped around three walls inside the house. However, it went into storage after the marriage ended several years later, not resurfacing until the 1990s, after Social Science Plaza A opened. Hoping to convert the new building’s arched storage hall into a gathering spot, Charles Lave donated the artwork. Two decades later, the room remains a junk vault and the faux Escher is largely off-limits, but social sciences dean Bill Maurer says he’d like to revamp the space and give the replica more exposure.
In keeping with UCI’s ranking as America’s No. 1 college for beach lovers, it seems fitting that the campus owns a 232-year-old piece of surfing history: the first printed illustration and description of people riding waves. The antique account appears in a journal penned during British explorer James Cook’s 1779 expedition to Hawaii. Published five years after Cook was killed by island natives, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean depicts aquatic acrobats setting out from shore on “long narrow boards, rounded at both ends.” After diving through smaller waves, the pioneer surfers “place themselves on top of the largest surge, which drives them along with astonishing rapidity toward the land.” But the report cautions that “if a person misses the proper moment, he is caught by the surf, and forced back with great violence; and his utmost dexterity is then required to prevent his being dashed against the rocks.” About the only thing missing is the word “dude.” A first-edition copy of the journal is kept in UCI Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives as part of a growing trove of vintage surfing books, photos and movie posters. Also included is a 1935 issue of Popular Science Monthly that features a how-to guide on making a surfboard, complete with pictures of Newport Harbor High School students shaping balsa wood.
Invasion of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”
UCI is known for playing cameo roles in such films as “Poltergeist,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” But few are familiar with the campus’s offbeat connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller “The Birds.” On the fifth floor of Langson Library, in a nondescript gray box housed in Special Collections & Archives, the movie’s feathered felons live on in sound effects recordings made by Remi Gassmann, an electronic music pioneer who helped devise the creatures’ eerie cries. Working with musician Oskar Sala in Berlin, Gassmann was paid $3,000 to electronically mimic the noise of fluttering wings and screeching chirps using an audio device called the Mixtur-Trautonium, an ancestor of modern synthesizers. Gassmann, who lived in Orange County and later befriended UCI’s first arts school dean, Clayton Garrison, bequeathed the artificial avian cacophony to the university in 1982, along with personal papers, illustrations and about $200,000, which was used to fund an electronic music studio and annual concert series at the campus.
Duke Ellington’s lost opera
“Opera” isn’t the first word that springs to mind when discussing big-band jazz great Duke Ellington. But in 1962, the legendary composer, pianist and orchestra leader began drafting “Queenie Pie,” a one-hour musical tale involving murder, magic and a millionaire beautician. Originally commissioned by New York public television station WNET, the “street opera” never aired and fell by the wayside until 1971, when Ellington resurrected the project and began expanding it into a full-length production. Alas, when he died three years later, the work remained unfinished. In 2007, trombonist Marc Bolin picked up where Ellington left off, extrapolating from manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution and an 87-page score held by UCI Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives. The campus’s piece of the puzzle had been collected by Professor Emeritus Donald McKayle while he was researching his Tony-nominated, Ellington-inspired play, “Sophisticated Ladies.” The UCI materials helped Bolin and the Long Beach Opera stage a well-reviewed version of the opera in 2014.
1853 slave memoir
He was drugged, kidnapped and sold into captivity, working on a Louisiana cotton plantation until his rescue in 1853. More than a century and a half later, the harrowing saga of violinist Solomon Northup became an Academy Award-winning movie, “12 Years a Slave.” The 2013 film was based on Northup’s almost-forgotten 1853 memoir, of which UCI has a first-edition copy. Written in just three months, the illustrated narrative sold more than 30,000 copies when it debuted. UCI’s yellowing copy of the hardback, which was purchased from a rare-books dealer, is preserved in Special Collections & Archives.