#GrassNotGlass: Why some CMC students are frustrated with placement of new art installation

Pae White stands in between her artwork and smiles.
Pae White near the Qwalala public art sculpture at Claremont McKenna College on Wednesday, September 20, 2023. (Courtesy: Claremont McKenna College)

A new artistic installation at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) sparked controversy among students and faculty for diminishing green spaces on campus.

Qwalala,” by artist Pae White SC ’85, is the newest addition to CMC’s public art program, which strives to “integrate art into all aspects of campus life and provide an opportunity to engage with the arts and others constructively,” according to the program’s webpage.

The installation of “Qwalala, a glass sculpture spanning 250 feet, has garnered significant criticism from CMC students because of its location on Mid-Quad. According to Kian Shah CM ’25, Mid-Quad was once a popular place for students to decompress and connect with friends.

“Around lunchtime, there would be a minimum of 30 to 50 people at any given time. And now you look at Mid-Quad, and there’s basically zero students sitting around the wall, or just generally in the vicinity,” Shah said.

According to White, however, the piece’s location was intended to foster community among students.

“My hope is that students will gather in those spaces and feel inclined to have an intimate space to talk, to read, to just hangout,” White said. “I mean, this piece becomes active when students or viewers are engaged with it.”

Moreover, the piece is meant to interact with the environment around it. Because of the varying way in which the lights and shadows hit the sculpture throughout the day, it is constantly changing.

Devanshi Guglani CM ’26, the current co-president of the Student Art Council, commented on the art’s impact on CMC’s campus in her speech at the sculpture’s dedication and community reception.

“‘Qwalala’… encapsulates the essence of artistry, and a deep connection to nature,” Guglani said. “It is especially magnificent in comparison to our former bland landscape, as you can see from the ‘before’ images of Mid-Quad that we have put up.”

Although the photos referenced in Guglani’s speech were an accurate representation of CMC’s Mid-Quad prior to the construction of “Qwalala,” the actual site differed from renderings of the sculpture and construction images posted on the CMC Instagram on Jun. 21, which displays grass in areas that are now covered with shrubbery or gravel.

Some students across CMC criticized this lack of green space. Sophie Wolters CM ’26 expressed concern over how it might impact the area as a social space on campus.

“A lot of upperclassmen would tell me what their experience was like before [‘Qwalala’] was built, and they said that the grass area was like the hub of CMC,” Wolters said.

Now, the once heavily-trafficked area is largely covered by glass and gravel.

Last June, students circulated a survey advocating for the relocation of the art piece to a less utilized area. The petition, titled “Grass Not Glass,” garnered traction among students, claiming that the wall divides and diminishes important social spaces in Mid-Quad.

Ethan Choi CM ‘25 was the student that originally posted the survey, which is no longer accessible. He was recently accepted to the Board of Trustees Campus Planning & Facilities Committee. TSL reached out for an interview from Choi, but he declined to comment.

Even without this platform, many students continue to vocalize their perspectives on the art piece. Shah stated that the #GrassNotGlass movement is not new. It originated with the redesign of both the hardscape and the landscape in North Quad — which Shah claimed used to have a “significant amount of grass” — in the 2020-2021 school year.

Commenting on the current state of the movement, Shah argued that the location for “Qwalala” would be perfect in the context of CMC’s $140 million eastern half expansion — but, he emphasized, CMC is still eight to ten years away from completing construction.

“I think in the public art process, there might have been a bit of overlooking of the students’ needs,” Shah said. “Along with the development of the new Roberts Campus expansion, the campus still needs to function as a campus and provide those [green] spaces for gathering and social interactions.”

In CMC’s public art process, where the artist is allowed to “advocate for a particular location on campus for the installation of the artwork,” art sites are chosen after the piece is bought.

After viewing CMC’s public art process online, Georgia McGovern CM ’24 advocated for more transparency in the decision-making process.

“I definitely think there should be more transparency,” McGovern said. “A lot of it is decided behind closed doors, and by the time students hear about it, the plans are already in full effect.”

Claire Moore CM ’26 said that the CMC party culture is now heavily concentrated in North-Quad due to the lessening grass areas around dorm halls, especially in Mid-Quad.

“Unfortunately, a lot of social life at CMC is concentrated in North-Quad, which has quite a big party and drinking culture,” Moore said. “I think having more open spaces for social events that aren’t in North-Quad would help CMC deal with the issue of not having a very inclusive social life for all students.”

Moore said more communal outdoor spaces would be beneficial to CMC students. 

“It would be good to get students out of their rooms and out of enclosed spaces – it’s good for mental health to be out in the sun,” Moore said. “We’re in beautiful Southern California and I think that having a lot of green spaces is representative of a school’s value for its students, student life, student happiness and just general well-being.”

Despite the critical discourse surrounding the location, White hopes the piece will be a crucial part of the greater Claremont community, which she has been deeply embedded in since before her time at Scripps College. 

“Claremont has always been a big part of my life,” White said. “To have [my art] come here was thrilling.”

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