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Chit Chat

Chit Chat: Fermilab names Genevan artist in residence

GENEVA – Sculptures that demand a double take to fully appreciate their complexity in multiple artistic genres are the calling card of Jim Jenkins of Geneva, whose workshop is at Water Street Studios in Batavia. A panel of jurors has chosen him the third Fermilab artist in residence from some 50 applicants, said Georgia Schwender of Geneva, curator of the Fermilab Art Gallery.

She called Jenkins’ intriguing artwork the perfect fit for the particle physics lab.

“A lot of his subject matter does deal with the sciences and many times does bring in references to physics,” Schwender said. “It always does feel very ethereal and very grounded in science.”

Jenkins will meet with scientists during the year and create works that will be featured at several events in 2018, including an exhibit at the Fermilab gallery running from January into March, she said. A goal of the yearlong residency is to nurture the connections between art and science. Schwender said Fermilab’s first director, Robert Wilson, was himself a sculptor.

Jenkins has been a fan of Fermilab for years.

“The things that they do there have always been fascinating,” Jenkins told Kane County Chronicle reporter Renee Tomell. “And what goes on in my head, I think, puts me in pretty much perfect alignment with it. From the standpoint of making art – not science – what I tend to stray off into is pseudo science and that’s OK because I use it for my own purposes.”

He’s also known for adding visual and literary puns and symbols to his sculptures, providing viewers with aha moments. People can view two of his monumental permanent works outside the public libraries in St. Charles and Aurora. The following is an edited version of the rest of their conversation.

Renee Tomell: Describe one of the art projects you’re working on for the lab.

Jim Jenkins: A snowflake detector – ‘Ring Around the Ring.’ A post-doc came over to the studio and he was very interested in how it all worked, and then said that it reminded him a lot of the experiments that he’s involved in. He’s a theorist [working on] detecting dark matter. [My detector touches on] how difficult it might be to detect the sound of a snowflake because it’s so light and has very little mass – like the neutrinos.

Tomell: How big is the piece and how does it work?

Jenkins: The tower that holds all the equipment is a little over 10 feet high – it will be put over in a field at Fermilab. It will be outstanding in its field. When snowflakes hit the high tension wires inside a housing on top of the tower … the wires will ring, and the ringing will be recorded – from digital to analog … to X-ray film.

Tomell: X-ray recording?

Jenkins: Back in the 1920s, when jazz was being developed in this country … artists and musicians [smuggled the forbidden jazz] on X-ray film into the Soviet Union. It was very fragile. The overarching metaphor within this piece is about our relationship to Mother Earth and the fragility of it and the fact that, in my opinion, we should have as much impact on Earth as a snowflake hitting a wire.

Tomell: What materials are you using?

Jenkins: The whole piece with one exception, [some fasteners], is all recycled material. Thirty-six small music boxes are used as tensioning devices. They do not make music … in the piece. The music they actually played is a piece called ‘Castle in the Sky’ [from] an animated Japanese film based on a portion of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ The use of … language in my work … brings some additional information and richness to the overall project.

Tomell: What other projects are you developing?

Jenkins: I’ve made a linear collider that fires two snowballs into a target … paintings are created when the debris from the target falls down. There’s another piece that will involve four professional musicians and a piece of music written by Olivier Messiaen, ‘Quartet for the End of Time.’

Tomell: What are you planning for it?

Jenkins: I am building a figure – the angel of the apocalypse – [called] ‘Dark Matters.’ Messiaen wrote it when he was a POW in a German prison camp in 1941. The prisoners, the guards, some German officials all attended. It is based on the Book of Revelation. What will go into the figure will be a piece of [a Fermilab] detector that was an experiment in the mid-1980s – a big piece of lead crystal. The [music’s] first movement is called ‘Crystal Liturgy.’ The overarching link that I have is that what the scientists were doing was bringing light into absolute darkness, and Messiaen was doing the same thing – bringing light into the darkness of the POW camp.

Tomell: Where do you draw inspiration for your art?

Jenkins: I believe that most all of this comes from outside me. I happen to be a conduit. My practice has been for the past 22 years to get up very early in the morning, sit, read a bit, meditate sometimes and then write. The writing can be very mundane or can have references to what I am building. I might just say I had to drill and tap holes. Or it may be reaching out in a different realm and finding the connection between the literature, the puns and the humor that’s there, and maybe [I will] see a metaphor develop, and it is unexpected. The carefulness in having this discipline creates an open channel to a pathway to the collective unconscious.

Tomell: Are there other sources of inspiration specifically for the residency?

Jenkins: I have this idea [for a surprise interactive project] that came from my reading ‘The Pope of Physics,’ the story of Enrico Fermi. The book coincides perfectly with the 50-year anniversary of Fermilab.

To follow the artist and his projects, visit and

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