How Michelle Obama’s words helped inspire new art inside the Keller Center

Inside Keller Center, ‘Knowledge (Madison)’ speaks to power of education and collective hope

A new two-part sculpture is now suspended inside University of Chicago’s Keller Center—just over 17 feet in length and 10 feet in height, made from laser-printed sheets of half-inch honeycomb cardboard.

Created by artist Susan Giles and commissioned by the Harris School of Public Policy, “Knowledge (Madison)” was inspired in part by Michelle Obama’s final public address as First Lady, along with a local student’s response to those words.

Giles asked a group of students at Kenwood Academy High School what they remembered about the 2017 speech. Using a motion-detector camera, she recorded then-sophomore Madison Grant waving two hands while reflecting on what Obama said about the power of education.

“I know how hard my parents and their parents had to work for it, and I have to continue the things that they’ve started,” Grant told Giles. “Knowledge is very powerful.”

Grant’s gestures were transformed into the laser-printed sculpture, which contains a compelling message about the power of collective hope, and of knowledge as the scaffolding that supports change. The sculpture builds, layer upon layer, into a work embodying the beauty of passionate aspiration. A set of steel plates, embedded in the sculpture, provide a hidden, structural spine for the piece. Seen from the bottom, it is a solid, foundational mass; seen from above, it is like the tip of an iceberg, mysteriously weighted with unknown depth.

—Visit the Harris School of Public Policy website to learn more about the making of the sculpture, and how Giles’ creative process was informed by gesture research conducted at the University of Chicago.