Anthony Thompson Shumate
Commission, University of Houston
The inspiration for Brazos Trace is the Brazos River, a major geographical feature adjacent to the campus. The project’s curving panels create the visual effect of a river descending through the architectural space. The river-like panels are patterned with images relating to the cultural and natural history of the Brazos.
The production and transport of cotton and sugar drove the economic development of the Brazos River region. The Lower Brazos, which snakes from the Gulf through the Coastal Plains, was sugar cane country, and the sugar cane plant is the dominant image of the first level. This sugar cane imagery is overlaid with a linear system suggesting water or air currents, an historic map of the Brazos River, and silhouette shapes of flying birds in reference to the river’s vital importance as a migratory corridor for wildlife.
The imagery on the second level is inspired by the cotton plant, historically, a major crop of central Texas. The panel is printed with magnified images of cotton leaf cells, which also suggest the surface of water. Cotton plant blossoms in various stages of development, the historic Brazos map, and shadows of migratory geese overlay this panel.
The imagery on the upper panel reflects the canyon country of the Upper Brazos. The linear pattern and abstract pool and stone shapes suggest river currents rushing around rocks and whirlpools. As the panel ascends toward the skylight, these images transition to air currents and islands seen from above. This upper panel is punctuated by a group of migratory hawks that create patterns of shadow and light.
The imagery has been scanned from original, hand-painted watercolors and then digitally printed on flexible, lightweight brushed aluminum panels. This material allows for some elements to be cut-out and pulled away from the surface, creating ever-shifting shadows, and taking full advantage of the rotunda’s 360 degree natural lighting.
The river’s original name in Spanish was “El Rio de los Brazos de Dios,” the River of the Arms of God. Brazos Trace is designed to visually “embrace” the viewer with encircling “arms” of imagery. Through its references to migration and agricultural cycles, it reflects the changing of the seasons, and it marks the earth’s rotation and revolution through its ever-changing shadow play. Its descending bands trace the course of the Brazos through the state, celebrating the river’s essential role in the pioneer settlement and economic development of Texas.