History Set in “Thirty Blocks” of Clay

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Every day, students walk past various artworks placed throughout the UCSD campus, unaware of their stories. The story of a hidden clay installation called “Thirty Blocks” by visual artist Virginia Maksymowicz — a former UCSD graduate student from the class of 1977 — has survived for almost 40 years. However, as the years went by, its story has been either mythicized or forgotten, adding to the curiosity of students who happen to discover it. Today, the piece beckons students to remember its story and the historical significance of its existence. 

In 1976, Maksymowicz placed “Thirty Blocks” within what used to be a vast space of unused land but is now just a scattering of Eucalyptus trees east of Geisel. The art piece is true to its title, consisting of 30 clay blocks, each pressed into the ground, forming a three-by-10 rectangle. A fetal-positioned body and an assortment of mundane objects, such as eyeglasses and a Swiss Army pocketknife, have left shadowy imprints into the clay. 

The installation’s permanence has made it a historical artifact at UCSD that dates back to the  university’s infancy following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

On May 10, 1970, a UCSD undergraduate, George Winne Jr., doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in the middle of Revelle Plaza. His horrific, self-sacrificing act was done in protest of the Vietnam War, following the example of other anti-war self-immolators. Winne was the fourth incident of self-immolation that year in California higher education. As a result, Governor Ronald Reagan shut down the state’s colleges and universities for a week. 

A couple years after Winne’s death, undergraduates in Michael Todd’s Environmental Sculpture class established the George Winne Jr. Memorial Grove, in which Maksymowicz’s “Thirty Blocks” is located. Over the years, stories have evolved associating “Thirty Blocks” with Winne’s death. The stories have become an explanation for “Thirty Blocks’” mysterious existence.

“I didn’t specifically make the piece for the Memorial Grove, and it wasn’t meant to illustrate Winne’s death,” Maksymowicz said. “But I thought the work would resonate with his story. The piece’s purpose seems to be working more now that the impressions of those objects are old. It is about the transience of human life, the passage of time and the traces of things that we leave behind. Thus, people did what I had intended, making up their own stories about the artwork.” 

“Thirty Blocks” was a part of Maksymowicz’s Master of Fine Arts graduate thesis. At the time, she had been working with body casting in clay, creating and installing unlabeled “fake fossils” around campus, which, unlike “Thirty Blocks,” had disintegrated over a short period of time.

“I would install my pieces off of jogging paths, places where there wasn’t heavy traffic, but where people might stumble upon them and try to figure out what it means,” Maksymowicz, now an Associate Professor of art at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said. “With ‘Thirty Blocks,’ I wanted to try something a little more permanent even though I didn’t know how permanent it would wind up being.” 

Maksymowicz noted how one such story in a Wikipedia article on George Winne Jr. stated that the clay blocks were from Revelle Plaza, where Winne had lit himself on fire and that the body imprint had belonged to Winne. 

In fact, according to Maksymowicz, it was her own body that had made the imprint (a large hooped earring is barely visible where her ear was pressed into the clay), and the clay blocks originated from her art studio in Mandeville Hall. 

“Whoever wrote that Wikipedia article must not have taken any science classes, because how could a burning body leave an impression into stone?” Maksymowicz said.

Although amused by the stories surrounding her artwork, Maksymowicz corrected the Wikipedia article, because it had claimed “Thirty Blocks” to be a part of the public domain, allowing people to reuse the image in whatever way they wanted. 

Regardless of these myths, Maksymowicz is still amazed by “Thirty Blocks’” long-standing existence. Since she had installed the artwork without permission, she hadn’t expected the piece to last more than six months without being reported and then confiscated. Instead, every time she visited the memorial grove, she found the leaves brushed off the clay bricks, as if someone were taking care of it. 

In 2000, a small bronze plaque was finally put in place at the memorial grove to officially recognize Winne’s memorial site. A fallen-over Eucalyptus tree with three new shoots growing out of it resides in the memorial next to “Thirty Blocks.”  According to Sara Sealander, one of the undergraduate students in Michael Todd’s sculpture class that had helped establish the memorial grove, the fallen tree symbolizes the growth in something that has been lost. Thus, it had been chosen as the perfect location on campus for Winne’s memorial. 

“I didn’t have a specific story in mind for ‘Thirty Blocks,’” but, of course, it makes sense that people would associate it with George Winne Jr.’s death,” Maksymowicz said. “We all leave something behind, and we don’t know what it’s going to be.”

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