Inside the elevator that ascends six floors in the UW-Madison Humanities Building to reach the university's art department, the aesthetics had sunk low, really low.
Over the years the metal walls of the bare-bones, slightly rumbly elevator served as a magnet for 2D creativity, some of it intriguing, but a lot of it slapdash and much of it resembling graffiti more often found on the sides of a bathroom stall. In other words, the kind of vandalism someone can pull off between stops on a 20-second elevator ride.
"It has always been kind of a traditional target for taggers and people that pull out Sharpies while they were riding the elevator," said art department chairman Tom Loeser.
"That's the public access point for the art department. For some people, I think it was a little bit offensive and not a great public face for the art department. So we would periodically repaint it and plead with people not to do it."
But over and over, the hodge-podge returned — until a staff meeting gave rise to an idea: Why not turn the elevator into a legitimate design space? Loeser got the blessing of university building officials, with a few conditions for safety.
"Basically, I think the feeling was that there was nothing we could do in the elevator that would be worse than it was," he said.
So on Monday, doors opened on the first installation in the art department's new "Hi/Lo Gallery," billed as "seven floors of visual candy" and named for the concept of high art/low art — plus, of course, the fact that it's squeezed into an elevator.
Kelly Johannsen took the plunge as the first approved elevator artist with her piece "Elevator to Eternity," an elegantly witty step into limbo. In the eerie glow of fluorescent ceiling lights, the elevator becomes a waiting room for the afterlife with a clock face stuck on the 11th hour and a bookshelf of volumes such as "The Afterlife for Dummies" and "Climbing Your Stairway to Heaven — the Eternal Bestseller." Travelers can push the button for "Hades" (to exit the building) or "Heaven" (seventh floor, home to graduate art studios).
"It's intended to be a humorous piece that forces people to participate, because they have to choose their eternal fate when they get in the elevator," said Johannsen, a 2003 UW-Madison journalism grad and manager of the university's student software training program, who created "Elevator to Eternity" for a Drawing II class she's enrolled in.
She spent about $100 in materials and 10 hours literally inside the elevator while she painted the walls, laid a faux-wood floor and installed the detailing. All the while the elevator was in operation, up and down, doors open and shut.
"It was quite interesting having people come in and out when I was trying to paint over the graffiti and install a floor," Johannsen said. "It was very hot and sticky, so I would get out every once in awhile."
"I did get to know the nuances of the elevator, like how it settles after 30 seconds of not being in use," she said. "So it does this big jump — which would be interesting when I was trying to stencil the little birds on the wall and things like that."
The biggest challenge, Johannsen said, was having to find nonflammable materials to meet safety requirements (no paper or canvas allowed). The faux cross-stitch that reads "Welcome to Purgatory: A Short Stop on Your Way to Eternity," for example, was painted on a plastic window shade. Johannsen's "books" are actually painted on linoleum floor samples.
One other student has expressed interest in doing a Hi/Lo Gallery show, but "Elevator to Eternity" will remain up for awhile, Loeser said.
"I'm guessing it might be vandalized at some point," Johannsen said. "It might be interesting to see how people respond to it. This is the first time a cohesive piece has been in there, so we're not sure if any vandalism will happen at all."