New artwork at UC's CenterCourt immortalizes a Cincy legend

Makeover at campus eatery helps spread the story of Martha, the last passenger pigeon.

With new artwork in the CenterCourt cafeteria, the University of Cincinnati is sharing a message of hope through an unlikely source — Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons. 

CenterCourt cafeteria on UC’s MainStreet, is connected to the Campus Recreation Center and one of the most popular eateries on campus.

Previously, the cafeteria featured walls with artwork of green grass, however, after almost 13 years, the artwork needed a refresh and redesign, said UC Architect Mary Beth McGrew. 

The university commissioned Rebeca Mendez, the UC graduate who designed the original grasses while a student when CenterCourt first opened in 2005. She is now a Los Angeles-based artist who won two Metro Art awards in 2015 for permanent public art commissions in LA.  

Mendez is a graphic designer, photographer and professor at the School of Arts and Architecture at UCLA.

“She is an intellectual first,” McGrew said of Mendez. “She almost buried us in the amount of research she did.” 

Because of her academic background, however, Mendez conquered the technical complexity of creating a design on the irregularly shaped areas, says McGrew. 

UC Campus Services wanted a lot of red in the design.

“We went on a rather lengthy journey with Rebeca as she went through research on the color red,” said McGrew. 

Mendez compiled packets of research detailing the color red on birds, where it appears on the UC campus, the color red in science and photography and red in other cultures, McGrew added. 

“We didn’t have a concept of where she was going at first. But, in the end, she came up with a pretty interesting idea that ties it back to Cincinnati.” 

A red bird flying through tall grass is meant to pay homage to Martha, the last known living passenger pigeon that died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The art was completed by Cincinnati artist Frank Stanton. 

“Prior to the 1800s, the passenger pigeon was a major migratory bird species, with populations numbering several billion at their peak,” said George Uetz, UC biology professor and department head of biological sciences. “They were so abundant that when they flocked in huge groups, flying across the landscape, they blocked the sun for hours to days at a time.”

The species, however, was hunted to extinction as a food source, and after the Civil War “new firearms and efficient transportation allowed commercial hunters to bag and sell them in great numbers,” says Uetz.

The Cincinnati Zoo had hoped to find a mate for Martha so the species could endure, but the search was unsuccessful and she died in 1914.

Her remains were taken to the Smithsonian Institution. Some in the academic community suggest testing her DNA in an attempt to resurrect the passenger pigeon as a species. But, according to Uetz, “many scientists are skeptical and have questioned this approach as it would be an unbelievably expensive and risky technological gambit and would result in a species entirely different from the original passenger pigeon, if successful.”

Martha symbolizes re-creation and furthering conservation efforts for currently endangered species, according to Lucy Cossentino, director of environmental graphics at UC.

Extinction serves an opportunity to reflect, re-create and become something new, says McGrew. “The most important thing is that the students learn about this story,” she added.

CenterCourt was first designed by Pritzker-Prize Winning architect Thom Mayne as a part of the larger Campus Recreation Center. The areas were geometrically shaped to maintain the aesthetic of the recreation center, but also concealed an exhaust port for the food emissions, says McGrew.

Featured image at top: Paintings of Martha, the Cincinnati passenger pigeon now highlight the decor inside UC's CenterCourt dining facility. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services.


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