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Historic pieces by Alexander Calder land in Brenau's permanent collection
1970s project created mats based on artists paintings
"Star" is part of the Alexander Calder: ‘Inspired by Motion’ exhibit, currently on display at Brenau University.

GAINESVILLE — Crack open any modern art history textbook and within its pages you will find Alexander Calder and his monumental sculptures.

But students at Brenau University don’t need their textbooks to get an up-close look at the famous artist’s work. They can just walk over to Simmons Visual Arts Center, which sits in the middle of their own campus.

Fourteen floor mats designed by Calder and executed by Central American craftsmen will hang in the Sellars Gallery at the center until March 30.

The 5-by-7-foot mats are composed of natural "maguey" fibers and dyes and meticulously braided and sewn together.

New York socialite Kitty Meyer encouraged Calder to embark on the project to preserve the work of artisans in Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1970s. The goal of the collaboration was to raise money for the Nicaraguan people to help them recover from earthquakes that devastated their region.

"They solicited people to purchase these works from them and then they encouraged them to donate them to museum and university collections throughout the United States," said Tonya Curran, director and curator for the exhibit.

Calder painted 14 gouache paintings that the artisans translated into mats. Calder’s colors and shapes are represented, but the artisans had the liberty of incorporating their own weaving styles and textures, making the works a true collaboration.

"That we have the entire set that was made during that time is pretty special — that we have an example of each design made for that philanthropic effort," Curran said.

The mats are part of Brenau’s permanent collection, donated by Alvin Meyer, Kitty’s husband, in 1993.

It is thought that Leo Castelli, a New York art dealer and Brenau trustee, had ties with the Meyers, possibly explaining why the university received such an important donation.

"I think it’s quite a coup for the school to have these works because he is such an internationally known artist," Curran said.

Calder, who lived from 1898 to 1976, had an impact on the art world that sneaked its way into mainstream society.

Calder is credited with the invention of the mobile, a kinetic sculpture that many children now watch from their cribs.

His looming, bright steel plate sculptures bring interest to cityscapes across the country and the world. Orbs, swirls, bright colors and imposing shapes compose Calder’s pieces. They’re abstract but always based on something.

Viewers can see the familiar shapes of crashing waves, mountains, constellations and people.

For some of the pieces, it’s a lot like gazing at the clouds — everyone sees something different. But the interesting part is wondering what Calder saw.