Rising phoenix is professor’s swan song

Describing why students in his landscape design studio create bamboo sculptures each semester, horticultural science Professor Will Hooker said, “The reason I have the students build the sculptures is that the majors in the class are in a design/build curriculum, and I’ve wanted them to have a building experience as part of their education.”

This past October, as Hooker prepared to retire at the end of fall semester after 34 years in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he led his students in one more such experience — crafting an appropriately avian-themed sculpture as the swan song project under Hooker’s direction.

“Phoenix Rising” is the bamboo creation taking wing majestically in front of the new home of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State University. The museum, moved from the university’s old Talley Student Center, is being reborn, like a phoenix from its ashes, in the Historic Chancellor’s Residence on Hillsborough Street.

Hooker’s students assembled the piece at Kilgore Hall, home of the CALS Department of Horticultural Science, before transporting it to the Gregg, where a bucket truck was used to hoist the piece in the air and hang it by cable from a high tree limb. Once installed, the orange, red, blue and yellow phoenix soared skyward as its vibrantly trailing tail swirled down to loop over the walk leading to the Gregg.

The original design of the phoenix was done by student Michelle Ye, with fellow student Ben Jones designing the archway created by the tail.

Will Hooker
Will Hooker

Hooker also shared feedback he received from the class about what they learned during the creation of the phoenix. And, certainly, their comments indicate that they had the kind of building experience he intended.

One student reported that among the important lessons he learned during the project were “translating a concept into drawings that help people understand its construction, organization and communication — how to let people know what needs to be done when you’re not there to explain it; [knowing] where to compromise complexity of the details for speed; always remembering to take a step back and think about the big picture; having faith that it can be done and keeping your team motivated.”

Another told Hooker that “having never worked with bamboo, at the designing phase of the project I was like, ‘This is impossible to make.’ But it all came together so quickly and smoothly. I’m so glad to have had other people there who were familiar with the material who helped make decisions with me on what to make first, what techniques to use, etc. It was definitely challenge after challenge, but I think it ended up really helping me grow personally, because, with the tight deadline, I had to make decisions and go forward.”

Ben Jones designed the archway created by the tail, and Michelle Ye designed the phoenix.
Ben Jones designed the archway created by the tail, and Michelle Ye designed the phoenix.

Meanwhile, a third student said, “I always get too critical about things I could have done better. But this project is something that I can really be happy with because we all came together and made it happen. It’s definitely one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.”

Previous studio sculptures, each more whimsical and/or complex than the last, have been installed by Hooker’s students at the JC Raulston Arboretum, the N.C. State Fairgrounds, local elementary schools and numerous regional gardens and public areas.

And in assessing this, his last bamboo creation as professor, Hooker said something that really applies to each — and to his time at N.C. State: “It all came along beautifully.”

– Terri Leith

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