Big, ‘understandable’ emoji-like sculpture installed on UK campus

Artist Tony Tasset’s Mood Sculpture was installed outside the Gatton Student Center on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Rick Childress

They sat there, stacked, sad, happy and indifferent—all at the same time. The 20-foot-tall tower of emoji-like faces greeted pedestrians outside of the Gatton Student Center on Tuesday morning. 

The sculpture seemed to come from nowhere, but it was a project a year in the making, said Stuart Horodner, the director of the UK Art Museum.

Tuesday was the installation and campus debut for Tony Tasset’s “Mood Sculpture.” Tasset, a Chicago-based artist commissioned to make the sculpture, said the idea for the tower of emotions came to him while reading a book on emotional happiness.

The tower sits in a grassy area near the Student Center’s main parking lot on the east side of the building. The faces look down on the pedestrian walk that leads from Patterson Drive to the main back entrance of the Center.  

The sculpture features five different faces. Each face is a four-foot sphere with a different emotion on it. The top face is smiling and yellow, the bottom ball is blue and frowning and every ball in between is made to represent every emotion in between happiness and sadness. 

“I thought people could walk by it and you could maybe measure the temperature of your mood that day,” Tasset, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said. 

Horodner said he was part of a UK committee that was dedicated to finding art for the Student Center. For all of the indoor spaces, they’ve primarily sought work by Kentucky artists.

That committee, Horodner said, found that there was a limited amount of work that they could show inside but outside “we had this amazing opportunity.” So a search for outdoor artwork began. 

“We tried to figure out artwork that could be large enough in scale, bold enough in its attitude, something we thought could clearly speak to the student community at UK, something by a really well-known American sculptor,” Horodner said.

When the committee saw the Tasset’s sculpture, they were immediately impressed.

“It’s big, it’s colorful,” Horodner said. “You immediately understand what it is.”

Each piece of the sculpture is made of steel reinforced fiber glass, Tasset said. He created the design for the sculpture and commissioned a different company to make it.

“A company in Sparta, Wisconsin, who makes Big Boy signs and giant dinosaurs and stuff like that,” Tasset said. “They fabricated it.”

Tasset estimated that it took about five months to construct. 

Tasset and Horodner will be talking more about the sculpture and Tasset’s past work at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the Gatton Student Center Ballroom Room 212C. 

While watching the sculpture be installed, Horodner said that the art piece was perfect for the “tension” on campus and in the world, noting recent protests over food insecurity, racial diversity and he noted the burning of the Notre Dame in Paris. 

“It seems to me to me like an unbelievable acknowledgement of ‘We go through these given emotions on a given hour let alone on a given day or week,” Horodner said. “I’m hoping the sculpture can be a kind of marker of acknowledging that. That we can have a crappy day and that tomorrow can be a better day.

“But you also have this ability of ‘Hey! I’ll meet you at the mood sculpture.”