Filed Under Art

Upwells, 1990

Artist Stephen Leucking (1948- ) created this granite and bronze structure. It can be found in the central plaza south of Beckman Institute. The artwork's spire reaches 40 feet high. This work was acquired through the John Needles Chester Fund and the Illinois "Percent for Art" Program.

By its very scale, its prominence, and its contrasts of shapes, materials and textures, Upwells attracts attention. It is participatory; people can move through the middle and children can play in the water. And it is educational, illustrating basic principles of astronomy that deal with the motion of the earth through the solar system.

The gigantic work consists of five components aligned with a north-south direction: three low domes overflowing with water, a stepped and faceted spire, and a tilted globe atop a pedestal in a keyhole-shaped pool. They stretch across a sloped, variegated brick pavement at the center of the north campus, near the Beckman Institute.

Piercing the 25-inch globe is a telescope-like tube that parallels the earth's axis. It points to the celestial north pole in a direct line with the tip of the tall spire. This pole (which marks the daily rotation point of the earth) is imaginary, but with the "telescope" it can be located even in the daylight. Polaris, the North Star, which is visible only at night, almost marks the location of the celestial pole; they are about a half degree apart.

The expansive domes, each nine feet in diameter, are spaced to define the changing seasons. Although the shadow of the spire sweeps across the area throughout the year, its length depends on the altitude of the sun, which ranges about 47 degrees. At the summer solstice, when the sun is at its highest position, about June 22, the tip of the shadow strikes the center of the dome closest to the spire. At the equinoxes, about March 21 and September 22, when night and day all over the earth are of equal length, it strikes the middle dome. At the winter solstice, about December 22, when the sun is at its lowest altitude, the shadow is longest and falls across the last dome. The shadows are difficult to discern, because the spire is so thin at the top and the shadows diffuse over the open grills at the centers of the domes.

No one could really use the sculpture for a calendar to mark the solstices even if the shadows were sharp, as the sun's position changes so slowly at these times of the year, astronomy professor James Kaler explained: "The sculpture is symbolic. Anyone looking at it, and understanding it, can immediately see how the sun moves to the north and south, casting shadows of different lengths as the months progress and the seasons change. You can locate accurate directions; it shows a great deal about the orientation of the earth, the orbit of the earth, the tilt of the earth's axis, and the origin of the seasons. I think it's a nifty piece of work, and it's fun to see a nice astronomical sculpture that is not a sun dial. I am going to recommend that my Astronomy 100 students examine and study it."

Luecking is active as a reviewer and essayist for art and architecture journals. He has exhibited in one-person and group shows and served as art juror and curator. His works include a collaborative environmental installation near Albuquerque, New Mexico, sponsored by Earthwatch, and a lodge expansion in Giant City State Park, Makanda, Illinois. He is a professor of sculpture at DePaul University, Chicago.

Funds for Upwells (and a number of other works at the university) came from two important sources. The John Needles Chester bequest is designated for the purchase of objects such as rare books, works of art, and museum items. Chester, a prominent alumnus of the class of 1891, was the first donor to the University of Illinois Foundation and later served as a member of the board of directors of the foundation and of the Alumni Association. He died in 1955. The Illinois "Percent for Art" program is part of a national art-in-architecture movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. With the goal of promoting and preserving the arts by "securing works of art for the adornment of public buildings," the law mandates that one-half of 1 percent of state funds appropriated for construction or reconstruction projects be set aside to acquire art by Illinois artists.


general view of Upwells Image courtesy ExploreCU team
side view of Upwells Image courtesy ExploreCU team


South of Beckman Institute, in central plaza


Muriel Scheinman, “Upwells, 1990,” ExploreCU, accessed June 30, 2022,