'Northern Sun' Rises in Barry Mills Hall

By Rebecca Goldfine

Sculptor Ben Butler ’00 and his friend Chad MacDermid ’00 spent two days at Barry Mills Hall transforming the high-ceilinged entryway with art.

Ben Butler places wood against the wall
Ben Butler works on Northern Sun.
The new installation, Northern Sun, evokes the Bowdoin seal, a sun’s trajectory through the sky, Maine’s coastal geology, and, Butler said, “the natural process of accumulation, growth, and at the same time erosion and entropy.”

One viewer who walked by during the installation asked the artist whether the form was exploding or contracting into a tight ball, to which Butler replied, “I don’t know! Maybe both.”

Later, he said, “My work is abstract, and I always intend it to be many-layered and ambiguous, but Maine geology was one of the formative images in my mind—the rock formations on the coast and rock outcroppings.”

Northern Sun is made from hundreds of smooth wooden forms that resemble stones worn down over time by water or wind.

In his project proposal, Butler described their cluster as a “a dense network of polygons that seems to grow out from the timber post bisecting the building, forming a hemisphere and then dissolving at its edges into light rays that reach in all directions.”

During a visit to the site last year, Butler absorbed the details of the space: the exposed beams of mass timber, the white expanse of wall with a door and awkward utility features at the bottom left, the flow of people moving through the area.

“A lot of my design has to do with the space,” he said. “I do a lot of public art, and a lot of that is letting the site inform the content of the piece, including the actual physical space, the institution or the state it is in, the natural landscape around it, and the people who work in the building—it could be any of those things.”

In Mills Hall, Butler said he was influenced by the architecture—“bold and dynamic”—but was concerned with the quirks of the wall Northern Sun would be attached to.

“At first that was very tricky, but whenever it is tricky it means there is some interesting solution there,” he said.

A Gift in Tribute
Northern Sun was underwritten by Elliott Kanbar '56 as an expression of his admiration for Barry Mills, Bowdoin's fourteenth president. 

His donation for this installation was his last gift to the College before his passing in December 2023.

With his brother, Maurice Kanbar, Elliott also provided significant support for the construction of Kanbar Hall and Kanbar Auditorium in Studzinski Recital Hall.
He ended up shifting Northern Sun up, to call attention away from the messy stuff at the bottom, and he pressed it against the wall’s vertical wood column, so it seems the mass is either slipping behind or emerging from it.
Butler and his friend Chad MacDermid installed Northern Sun in two-and-a-half days in March.

In the months leading up to the March installation, Butler and his small studio team in Memphis, Tennessee, cut, ground, and sanded by hand between 500 to 600 pieces of poplar wood to create the piece. The wood’s color—a soft yellow—matches the exposed timber of Mills Hall.

While Butler aligned the of grains in each “speck” of wood to create uniformity in the orientation, each speck has unique character. Some are slightly greener and others more yellow, depending on the age of the tree at harvest. Other pieces have stripes of dark purple and green coursing through the grain, colored by minerals from the soil pulled up by the roots.

Northern Sun is the first piece of public art for Mills Hall, which was dedicated in April 2023, and the second public art installation that Butler has created in Maine (he has, additionally, installed art all across the country, in hotels, hospitals, stadiums, universities, parks, etc.). His other Maine piece is in the York Judicial Center in Biddeford.

Butler graduated in 2000 with a major in visual art and earned a master’s in fine art from School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. He said he jumped at the chance to create something for Bowdoin. “It still feels like home,” he said. “So much of why I am an artist and why I do what I do is informed by Bowdoin. Not only did I figure out I was an artist while I was here, but studying art in the liberal arts environment was ideal—the idea that interdisciplinary thinking is such a great catalyst for creativity and teaching students.”

Butler taught art at Rhodes College in Memphis before leaving in 2016 to dedicate himself full-time to his art. Now that he’s completed the commission for Bowdoin, he will travel to Milwaukee in two weeks to install a piece in a convention center there.

After he had affixed the final piece of wood on the large white wall of Mill’s Hall entryway on Thursday, March 21, he gazed at the result. “I’m excited,” he said, a note of awe in his voice. “It's going to be a permanent part of Bowdoin.”

Most photos by Michele Stapleton.

The Process

After coming up with an idea for Barry Mills Hall, Bulter began to draw. When he was satisifed with his drawing, he projected the composition onto two massive sheets of thick brown paper taped together in his studio. He traced out 250 shapes and numbered them.

With this step completed, he cut out the shapes with an X-Acto knife, and delivered the great pile of cutouts to his studio team, who used them to make replicas in poplar wood. Additionally, he and his assistants made hundreds more smaller pieces of wood that didn’t have a designated spot but which would be added close to the end to form the sun's trails. 

Butler used the same large brown paper sheet as his wall template to guide the installation in Mills Hall. “It has to be so precise to match up with the wood,” he said. “This solution [just paper, tape, and pen] works well.” With help from MacDermid, a professional art handler in Camden, Maine, Butler taped the template to the wall, using an uncomfortably wobbly riser, and began the process of fastening each piece of wood, using Gorilla wood glue and finishing nails.