When Nat Carruthers was preparing to graduate from Kenyon in 2010, he knew he wanted to leave some lasting impact on his environment: “I wanted to leave an imprint on Kenyon as much as Kenyon was going to leave an imprint on me. I mean, I was going to think about Kenyon all the time, but would Kenyon ever think about me?”
He designed his legacy as his final project in a studio art class, where he was asked to create a piece that incorporated one hundred handmade objects. His one hundred (estimated) beautiful dragonflies are now suspended from the ceiling of Fischman wing in Higley Hall. Biology students and faculty alike marvel at ‘A Fetch of Fittings’ as they pass underneath on their way to lab or travel the second floor hall between Higley and Tomsich. The work’s enticing ‘fidget-quality,’ as Nat pointed out, inevitably led to the sculpture becoming tangled, so this year biology department chair Drew Kerkhoff invited Nat back to campus to refit his fittings.
Nat was thrilled to have a Kenyon homecoming: “I think there are probably fewer schools you can come back to where you can hug faculty and chat with professors and go have a drink with someone you haven’t seen, you know, do that kind of stuff and feel that they still really care about you. Kenyon is special in that way.”
Returning to Higley Hall brought back strong memories of Nat’s time at Kenyon, where he was on a pre-medical school track for most of his career in the biology department. Though his greatest fascinations were on the cellular level, Nat was curious about all the aspects of biology he studied, from animal physiology and genetics to wetland ecology. He also recalled throwing all his papers and binders off the third floor of the chemistry building following his final exam as a senior and watching all the papers rain down. “But we cleaned it all up afterwards.”
As a student, Nat spent many hours studying in the lounge chairs on the second floor of Fischman and Higley. He was drawn to the large windows and the bright open space filtering natural light like he was used to in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Designers, Nat said, are always “tortured by their environment,” and he designed Fetch of Fittings to fit this space in the true spirit of the biological mantra ‘form fits function.’
“I had thought it would look cool here because of light and the amount of students who pass by here- I always thought it would be cool to have something take up that space.” The curve of the dragonflies spiraling up to the ceiling on their invisible fishing wires draws the eye upward, and the overall shape of the piece is reminiscent of the spiral of a DNA double helix, mirroring the classic ball and stick DNA models that rest on the shelf in the corner of the wing.
The idea came to Nat as a slow buildup from his final studio art project, where students were instructed to create a sculpture that incorporated 100 identical handmade items. While most students designed pieces to sit on the ground or on top of a table, Nat, who has always been fascinated by flight, wanted something that could hang and move in the air and something that also reflected his love of biology. He chose dragonflies as his 100 items, fascinated by the elegant mechanics of their flight and their history as an evolutionarily ancient animal: “they symbolize that elegance, simplicity, and yet how complex they are as little creatures.”
The process of making ‘Fetch of Fittings’ was an experiment in patience, perseverance, and trial after trial. Nat worked closely with now-retired professor of art Barry Gunderson, who advised him on optimizing and simplifying his design. At first, Nat was adamant about making his metal dragonflies intricate with as much biological accuracy as possible, but after trials and errors in reproducing the iron insects which turned out “really quite bad,” Nat learned that simplicity was key to a good design. “On the same sense as it’s handmade, it also has to be mass-produced,” a mentality he now applies when tackling projects with his design firm: “it’s about finding that place that has as little design as possible but also communicates the effect fully.” Nat finally settled on a simple design of a silver bolt with nuts as clamps for the wire mesh wings.
Once complete, Nat sold his sculpture to the biology department to hang in Fischman Hall, exactly as he’d designed it. He spent an entire day during his senior week before graduation on a lift with a maintenance worker who helped him operate the machinery while he fitted his design to the ceiling of Fischman. Once complete, all that was left was to classify his creation. Nat chose ‘Fetch of Fittings’ as a comment on both the concept and the materials of the work. A ‘fetch’ is the term for a group of dragonflies, and ‘fittings’ calls attention to the materials that produce them and the mechanics of the sculpture itself.
“I hope the source of delight is when you see them from a distance, you think wow those are really cool, and then as you come closer you see how they slowly move and you want to reach out and touch them, and I wanted that ‘fidget quality,’ that fiddle-with desire. For me, and I think my love of design comes from the fact that I like art that you want to touch, that really grabs your attention and draws you to delighting in the details, the simplicity of it.”
Nat had the opportunity to fiddle with his creation once again on Wednesday and Thursday. He crafted extra dragonflies for the occasion, some he had left over from the original creation as a senior and some he made in his hotel room at Kenyon the night before his repair work began. He added two as I watched to fill empty spaces, but decided to leave the design mostly unchanged, instead distributing the extra fittings among faculty and passing students.
“Whenever you make anything, there’s a little bit of obsession, you know everything about it: always tweak, always perfect. I had dreams and aspirations of filling the whole space, just having hundreds of them raining down, but once again there’s this sort of constant reigning myself back.”
For Nat, the process of creating a ‘Fetch of Fittings’ was exemplary of how Kenyon shaped him as a student and a thinker, helping him to modify and tweak his goals until he eventually realized his dreams:
“I think why Kenyon is an amazing place is because brilliant ideas can come very quiet, and some of those barely formed thoughts, when they’re given the space to grow, can evolve into something amazing. And that’s where students come in is having the space to allow for that exploration, right? Because the general goal is to create a great education for people, but when you actually give space for ideas as opposed to just teaching there are incredible results, and that something that’s really special about Kenyon.”
As part of his visit to campus, Nat gave a talk to students and faculty on Wednesday entitled “If Art and Science had a Baby” about how his education at Kenyon as a biology major and studio art minor led him to his current career as the head of his own industrial design firm: Dezyn Group, LLC. He spoke enthusiastically about his long journey from avid student of biology at Kenyon to sales and operations manager at Zybek Athletic Products to head salesman for Audi automobile manufacturers to graduate student at the Metro State University of Denver to managing his own industrial design company, and he offered the students valuable tips on ‘designing your life.’