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CityWay YMCA: Artsy by Nature

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The long-anticipated YMCA at CityWay will open to the public next month, on Dec. 15th. The downtown location, billed as Indianapolis’ first full-service downtown Y, will be about half a mile away from Eli Lilly and Company’s global headquarters and Indy’s bustling city center. Anyone who steps inside the Y’s atrium, however, will find themselves instantly transported to tranquility, all thanks to sculptor Stephanie Cochran.

Cochran, who is finishing up graduate studies at Herron, was one of several sculpture students who entered a design in a YMCA-sponsored competition. The proposal: Create an installation that would find a permanent home in the atrium of the new Y. Cochran’s design – dozens of colorful, transparent acrylic discs engraved with leaf designs – is reminiscent of fallen foliage floating on a river, a likely sight from summers that Cochran and her family spent at the Flat Rock YMCA camp.

The installation plays with light and sound to create a relaxing, natural ambience. - COURTESY STEPHANIE COCHRAN
  • Courtesy Stephanie Cochran
  • The installation plays with light and sound to create a relaxing, natural ambience.

“It’s exciting to fill a space like the Y, [knowing] it will affect the public’s journey during their day and maybe make it a little better,” Cochran says.

One senses a deep sense of peace when Cochran talks about growing up at the Flat Rock camp, where her parents served as camp directors until Cochran was a teenager. She and her sister spent their time exploring the river, connecting with nature and tending the seeds of a lifelong spiritual connection that remains with Cochran to this day.

“There was a chapel at the Y that was cantilevered out over the river. My dad led chapel for the campers,” she says, recalling those sunny summer days as a kid. “I was pretty young and remember sitting on a bench, wiggling my feet. I was bored but looking around, I understood it was a spiritual place … a spiritual home.”

Her installation for the CityWay Y, she shares, was created in reference to her father, thanking him for the time she spent surrounded by so much beauty, listening to the river and being able to seize upon such “a sense of place and belonging. It’s important … to preserve those places because they matter.”

A deep sense of thanks pervades Cochran’s interactions, from honoring her father to her collaborations on the project with her fellow Herron students. “It was an honor, of course, to win, but exciting to be chosen from students who had really put consideration into their ideas … people who had done such a good job proposing their pieces.”

Cochran is clearly pleased to have worked and been supported by her fellow students.

“We critiqued each other’s work, [discussed] how the pieces were going to interact with the public, solved structural issues … all of us working together towards a goal, despite different points of view.”

Being asked questions that began with “Have you ever thought of …?”, “What if you…?” and “What would happen…?” allowed Cochran to accomplish a lot more than she would have ever considered. She references several people on the project who “went out of their way to make things happen.” She shifts the kudos away from herself to credit everyone from the graphic designer who digitized the images that Cochran engraved on her acrylic discs to the subcontractor who operated the 40-foot lift that allowed Cochran’s work to be suspended from the ceiling during pre-installation tests.

Cochran puts the finishing touches on one of the acrylic plates for the new CityWay YMCA. She and fellow Herron students are helping install the pieces this week. - PHOTO BY KENTON PRATT
  • Photo by Kenton Pratt
  • Cochran puts the finishing touches on one of the acrylic plates for the new CityWay YMCA. She and fellow Herron students are helping install the pieces this week.

The concept behind her piece might seem simple – connect people living in an urban space with nature, art and tranquility – but there’s a deeper intent waiting to be discovered.

“It’s important to interface with nature, to take care of yourself,” Cochran says, explaining that her goal is to bring the peace of nature to someone who might not be able to get away to the woods, to a tranquil spot near a river. The discs suspended in the Y’s atrium will be a call for visitors to look up, to remember “there’s stuff bigger than we are … to look up and see something other than my own small journey.”

Though Cochran speaks figuratively, her installation is also literally large, measuring 40 feet x 60 feet and hanging about 11 feet above the floor, making it “probably 38 feet tall.” “It’s humbling to put such a big installation in the space,” she says.

This installation is especially important to Cochran because of her lifelong connection to the YMCA. She was, in fact, born at the Flat Rock Y. “It’s on my birth certificate,” she says with a laugh. “I pretty much grew up down there,” which provided an excellent opportunity to connect her childhood and adulthood when it came time to propose her design to the Y.

In addition to the acrylic discs that bear her designs, Cochran includes a sound component, recording at Flat Rock near her childhood hangouts.

“I recorded a 24-hour loop,” she says, noting that spring will feature frog sounds. Summer will include birds, cicadas and other insects. Fall will be “mostly wind,” and then woodpeckers will claim the spotlight in the winter. The sounds, which will be broadcast through 20-foot-long pipes, will be swapped out in the installation as the seasons change.

The idea behind Cochran’s vision is to bring ambient noise inside the Y, giving facility members a “peaceful moment, a relaxing time,” and the chance to experience sounds generally not heard within the city limits. Ideally, the soundtrack that Cochran is creating will be available on a downloadable, “really subtle and relaxing” soundtrack that people can take with them back to work.

She has tested the installation at Herron’s sculpture building, displaying a few discs to see how the light plays with the piece. “It’s really exciting,” she says, “when the sunlight hits the discs and they reflect light and multiply throughout the space. I’m hoping that’s possible at the Y.”

She’ll be spending some time in the atrium after the installation of the piece, as she’s not yet sure “how light lives in the building over a 12-hour sun cycle.” She continues: “I like it when my piece is able to reflect time in the sense of a sundial. Depending on when you’re there, it’s a different piece.”

A family snapshot from Flat Rock, Indiana, shows Cochran's earliest days at the YMCA camp where she'd eventually spend many summers throughout childhood. - COURTESY STEPHANIE COCHRAN
  • Courtesy Stephanie Cochran
  • A family snapshot from Flat Rock, Indiana, shows Cochran's earliest days at the YMCA camp where she'd eventually spend many summers throughout childhood.

The Artist’s Bio:

Cochran got her start at Herron in the 1980s, meeting her now-husband in a painting class. The next 30 years virtually fly by as Cochran explains that she did “what a lot of women did then – I supported [my husband] as he went to school and my schooling got put on hold.” After her children went off to college, Cochran experimented briefly with being an empty nester. “Oh no, this won’t do!” she says, laughing, and talks about earning a B.A. from Anderson University with a concentration in glass and sculpture.

She simultaneously studied at Ball State, taking every glass class they had available. The opportunity to study at the latter was an opportunity given to her by the faculty. After they started the program, she explains, she spent time in both [Anderson’s and Muncie’s] communities simultaneously, gaining “great exposure to materials and artists.”

Cochran tests out the suspension of one of her acrylic discs for the CityWay installation.  - COURTESY STEPHANIE COCHRAN
  • Courtesy Stephanie Cochran
  • Cochran tests out the suspension of one of her acrylic discs for the CityWay installation.

Wanting to “expand [her] understanding of how sculpture worked in space,” Cochran brought her post-grad interests to Herron. She was also very interested in Herron’s public art program, saying repeatedly that the opportunities [she was] afforded at the school are “phenomenal.”

Next semester, Cochran will lend her expertise to Herron students when she teaches a glass casting class. The class will be an opportunity for students to incorporate glass into their sculptures without the medium being the focal point of the piece.

Glass programs, Cochran notes, are extremely expensive to support, as well as time-consuming. She explains: “Four years in art school is a really short time. You can spend all your time learning hot glass, for example, or get more diverse experience as a sculptor.”

Her approach, to use glass components in larger pieces, “meshes really well with Herron’s sculpture program.”

She says, “I like how glass can catch light and hold it in a piece… it can do things that traditional sculpture pieces don’t do, which is a fun thing to consider when you’re making other pieces… it’s probably why I used acrylic in the piece for the Y… because it acts like glass.”

Cochran is excited about the work she’s done at Herron and the students and professionals with whom she’s worked on her project.

“There’s no other way I could have done this without collaboration,” she says.

She’s also extremely grateful for the scale model of the atrium built by the sculpture program, as well as being granted access to a CNC router, which she used to etch her leaf designs.

“[Herron] may not have a glass shop yet,” she says, “but oh my goodness what they do have! How they’re integrating technology is dumbfounding to me. I’m learning a lot. I get jazzed about it and never want to leave.”

She continues, “I wake up every morning and I’m grateful to be on the journey and I’ll go wherever it takes me,” whether that’s teaching, making more public art, or making art. “I want to do it all. I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities. If it all stopped in May, I would do it all over again. It was worth it.”

See the progress of Stephanie Cochran’s installation on the River Grove Public Art Project page on Facebook. For a list of activities happening the week of the YMCA at CityWay’s opening, including a Free Community Day and the third-annual Revolution Ball fundraiser, visit their blog.

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