Book Examines Artist Michael Ayrton's
Interest in Daedalus
Posted January 14, 2003
HOLLAND -- 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
"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
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
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
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
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