In Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” a place for contemplation without an agenda

Caleb Wong

UT’s campus can make students extraordinarily stressed. Speedway construction induces claustrophobia. PCL’s harsh fluorescent light causes headaches. Even spaces built for relaxation are busy and purposeful. The wooden mezzanine between the Student Activity Center’s first and second floors is often buzzing with activity, even as students try to catch a nap. 

But in our drive to succeed at UT, we should make time for wonder and contemplation without an agenda, without a purpose. Sometimes, we need to rest both our eyes and our minds. Ellsworth Kelly’s light-filled sanctuary, “Austin,” offers exactly that sort of place for contemplation. 

“It’s really meant as a space for contemplation and quiet. (Kelly) called it a place for calm and light,” said Carter Foster, deputy curator for curatorial affairs at the Blanton Museum and a close friend of Kelly. 

Solid wooden doors open to a space that feels sacred. The inside of the chapel is filled with a light that comes through stained glass. Black-and-white artwork adorns the walls, evoking the stations of the cross. An 18-foot totem stands in the rear of the building, where a cross would normally stand in a church. Walking around the building, I noticed every breath and felt my feet pacing on the floor. I couldn’t see anything outside of the building. I felt present in Kelly’s world: a temple of light. The minimalist space invites students to gently observe themselves, moment by moment. 

Everything Kelly put in the chapel — light, a totem and paintings — asks us to imagine our better selves. The white walls and austere paintings act as a blank canvas, inviting us to bring the color and joy of our lives into the space. Kelly might have passed away, but the building is very much alive, changing every minute. By observing the light and interpreting the artworks in our varied ways, so are we.

Our campus lives are rushed. This is good at times. But the act of contemplation offers us a rare chance to clear our minds and look at the world as it is. One can reflect anywhere. “Austin,” however, offers a place to do that deliberately. With lots of light and without a view of the outside world, we are free to look within ourselves. 

Wong is a Plan II and government senior. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong