Sculpting the future
By Sophie Lambert
Stroll through the East Quad in recent weeks and your eye may have been drawn to a glint of bronze catching the sunlight. In the shadow of the spreading beech tree that has watched over graduations for 150 years, Alma Mater, a new installation by sculptor and artist Jephson Robb (MA 1998) now sits permanently, celebrating the role of philanthropy at the University.
We are thrilled to be unveiling the sculpture this year, in celebration of the world-changing giving that has shaped the University over the last decade and helped it flourish for many centuries. Alma Mater expresses the power and potential of the University’s philanthropic community to effect positive change. It also conveys our gratitude to our donors, some of whose names are engraved into the black granite plinth, symbolically embedding them in the foundation and soil of the University grounds.
Alma Mater has been created by acclaimed Glasgow-based artist and designer Jephson Robb, who is known for his sculptures, works on paper, and furniture. In recent years he has completed several public and private commissions and, in 2022, he created an artwork for Louis Vuitton’s global project Louis 200. Jephson’s art has also been shown at exhibitions worldwide, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where his work is part of the permanent collection.
Jephson Robb in his studio with a maquette – a smaller-scale model – of Alma Mater.
Photo above and top: Andrew Lee, © Jephson Robb / Jephson Robb Limited
During his time at the University, Jephson studied Political Economy and Economic History and although art and economics may appear to be worlds apart, Jephson believes that his experience at UofG has positively influenced his career and artworks. “Studying Political Economics helped me to see the essential elements of complex issues and taught me to examine subjects from both a micro and a macro perspective,” he explains.
The artworks on campus also played a significant role in unlocking Jephson’s passion for sculpture. “When I was a student, I spent much of my time in the University library and, just outside the main entrance, there’s a permanent bronze sculpture by Dhruva Mistry called Diagram of an Object. It looks like a mother nurturing a child, which had a powerful impact on me,” he says.
"I discovered sculptures on campus by Jake Harvey, Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro and more. At that time, I didn't know who these artists were, but finding those works was an unforgettable moment that gave me an awareness of the power of sculpture.
The significance of these early artistic encounters made creating Alma Mater a poignant process for Jephson. “I’ve created several sculptures for public display; however, this commission is a career highlight,” he says. "Giving something back to my alma mater in this way is incredibly special and profoundly personal.”
“During site visits to the East Quadrangle, I was captivated by the majesty of the beech tree that’s stood there for close to 200 years. I was drawn to contemplate who planted it, which made me wonder if they did so knowing that their action was for the benefit of future generations, and an act of love of humanity. I then drew a direct parallel between the planting of a seed and the donations of Glasgow’s philanthropic community whose generosity today benefits current and future generations, enabling them to grow."
'Alma Mater' means 'nurturing mother' – there’s nothing more profound in the human connection than the relationship between a mother and child. In addition, 'philanthropy' means the 'love of humankind', which I believe is worth striving for."
The architecture of the East Quadrangle also contributed to the final design. “When working on an outdoor sculpture, I consider how the piece will interact with its setting and relate to its surroundings,” explains Jephson. “For this commission, I decided to create a natural resonance between the sculpture and the architecture of the Gilbert Scott Building and the archways of the cloisters that support the Bute Hall. To connect the sculpture with the golden colour of the sandstone, I selected silicon bronze and created a unique surface finish that reflects sunlight on the cloudiest days. The underside outer edge of the beech tree canopy informed the sculpture’s height. Alma Mater is of a scale that doesn’t set it in competition with the tree; however, its considerable size allows it to express the gratitude the University has for its donors.”
Alma Mater is part of a larger body of recent works, Shapes of Light, which Jephson showed at a major solo exhibition at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society in 2019. Jephson creates work in a variety of materials and he explains that he particularly enjoys working at scale. “I like creating large-scale sculptures; they naturally lend themselves to being installed outside. Art has much to offer everyone and I believe it should be out in the world and accessible. Knowing that Alma Mater is on permanent display for all to enjoy is a tremendous honour, for which I’m extremely grateful.”
This article was first published in June 2023.