posted January 14, 2003

Book Views Artist Michael Ayrton and Daedalus Myth

A book decades in the making examines a British artist's long-time fascination with a Classical myth thousands of years old.

Dr. Jacob Nyenhuis of the Hope College faculty has written the book "Myth and the Creative Process: Michael Ayrton and the Myth of Daedalus, the Maze Maker," published early this year by Wayne State University Press. Nyenhuis, who retired from Hope in 2001 as provost and professor of classics, conducted his first research trip for the project in 1971.

"I confess that finishing this decades-long project has given me a tremendous sense of relief, as well as a tremendous sense of achievement," said Nyenhuis, who in retirement serves the college as director of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute.

In conjunction with the book's release, the college is featuring an exhibition of Ayrton's work from Monday, Jan. 13, through Friday, Feb. 7, in the gallery of the De Pree Art Center.

According to Greek mythology, Daedalus was an inventor who fashioned wings of feathers and wax to escape from imprisonment on the island of Crete, where he had been forced by King Minos to build the labyrinth that held the Minotaur. While Daedalus succeeded, his son Icarus, who accompanied him, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax and damaging the wings, and plunged to his doom in the Aegean Sea.

Ayrton, who died in 1975 at age 54, produced hundreds of works of art based on the stories surrounding the ancient mythological Greek inventor.

Ayrton began his career as a painter in a group called the "Neo-Romantic" artists. In the 1950s, he began to work increasingly in bronze sculpture, owing in part to his association with Henry Moore. His interest in Greek mythology developed at about the same time, when he visited Cumae in southern Italy, and deepened with frequent visits to Greece.

"For the final 19 years of his life, he had drawn inspiration from--indeed had been obsessed with--the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, of the maze and the Minotaur," Nyenhuis said.

Nyenhuis, who began his teaching career as a classics professor at Wayne State University in 1962, is himself internationally recognized as an expert on the myth. He was invited to serve as a consultant to the successful 1988 recreation of the legendary inventor's 74-mile flight across the Aegean. Closer to home, he played a leadership role in the 1989 installation of the statue "Icarus" by sculptor Kurt Laurenz Metzler in the college's Pine Grove in honor of former English faculty member Dr. Clarence DeGraaf.

The 397-page book focuses on Ayrton in exploring the relationship between myth and art. Although Nyenhuis noted that the sheer quantity of Ayrton's work ultimately made him a natural emphasis for the project, it was a series of happy coincidences that first led him to the artist.

In the fall of 1967, while still on the Wayne State faculty, Nyenhuis was a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. At the same time, he was completing an article on Greek myth in 20th century art and literature, focusing on the story of Daedalus and Icarus. He showed a colleague--also a visiting scholar, from Trinity College in Bristol--some related illustrations, including some by Ayrton that were in a book.

"I'd never heard of him before. I knew nothing about this artist," Nyenhuis said. "And he said, 'Well, that's interesting. There's this chap in the art department who rang me up the other day, and he said there's this chap Ayrton who's visiting there. Maybe he's the same person. Why don't you ring him up and find out?' And so I did, and he was."

When in 1970 he received a research grant to begin a book that expanded on his article's theme, he knew that Ayrton was the right place to begin. "Ayrton had done so much more with the myth than anyone else," Nyenhuis said.

He visited with the artist in 1971, and then annually for the next few years. He last saw him during 1973-74, while on sabbatical in Greece, when he was able to share an early draft of the book. "He felt that I had understood his work remarkably well, and was very encouraging," Nyenhuis said.

When Ayrton died in 1975, however, publisher interest in the project waned. In addition, Nyenhuis by that time was at Hope, and became heavily embroiled in his work as an administrator and in professional issues generally. He continued to dabble in the project, collecting materials periodically, but didn't come back to it seriously until a sabbatical at Oxford University in the fall of 1989. Over the next decade he persevered with the project, devoting weekends, holiday breaks and some of his vacation time to it.

Although the book stresses Ayrton, it opens with a chapter that traces the development of the myth in art and literature from Classical Antiquity through the 20th century. It also includes an annotated catalogue of 812 works by Ayrton--drawings, paintings, etchings, and sculpture--related to the myth cycle.

The Jan. 13-Feb. 7 exhibition, "Michael Ayrton: Myth and the Creative Process," includes bronze and mixed- media sculptures, prints, drawings, and paintings. Nyenhuis served as a consultant on the exhibition curated by Dr. Jack Wilson, who is former director of the De Pree gallery and professor emeritus of art history.

There will be an opening reception and curator's lecture on Friday, Jan. 17, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. In addition, Nyenhuis will present an illustrated lecture on Ayrton and myth in the college's DeWitt Center main theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 4 p.m.

The public is invited to the exhibition, the reception and the lectures. Admission is free.

The De Pree Art Center is located on Columbia Avenue at 12th Street. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.