The Soft Ice Cream Sculpture
A personal account of a moment of insight during an experimental course — 1972.
by Gerald Grow
After we came back from the Claes Oldenberg exhibit, the classroom seemed like an alien place, so I abruptly told students in my Art and Science Seminar we would meet outdoors today–without the least idea what we would do next. We filed into the quad of our small Catholic college. A fire hydrant seemed like a good enough focus, so I asked students to sit in a circle around it. Looking for the next inspiration, I stepped over to the snack shop, bought the largest soft ice-cream cone they made, and placed it in the sun on top of the hydrant.
For two hours, we watched it melt.
I didn’t have the slightest idea how this was going to work out, but I risked everything during that one class on an impulse I couldn’t explain. Sometimes teaching is like that. Most of these students had taken other classes from me and they trusted me as a teacher, so I let them believe I had everything planned. We had learned and laughed together, and we had shared some deep feelings about deep literature. For the first few minutes, a professorial dignity kept creeping up on me, but slowly, I started to relax and notice what was happening–though at first, that did not seem to be much. I gently coached students throughout the class, directing attention here or there, encouraging a latent response, helping their sense of hilarity bubble out and evaporate, nudging them into the immense disparity between what they learn in school and what they experience in the world.
Education fills our minds with a great many things. It gives us a world in our minds–a world many people try to live in. Sometimes all we can see is what we have learned. Today the students and I paid attention to the little things that were happening in front of us–as the ice cream, a too-white imitation of vanilla, dripped off in slow, separate drops, each with a faint, audible plop, puddling around the top of the hydrant.
Three streams formed. One ran down and around the curve of the hydrant’s elbow. One ran into another elbow, past its hose fitting. The third went down the far side of the hydrant and ended in a semicircular puddle surrounding an enormous rusty bolt.
Some ants came to investigate the melting ice cream but went away, apparently not finding it worth the trouble to eat. Looking for the end of the stream, we noticed dozens of newly-hatched earwigs in the grass. Several were pinkish-white. Slender, soft pincers drooped behind them.
A small freckled spider lived in a web under the back valve. Another lived in the bolt port at the bottom, below grass level. A huge jumping-spider–with forearms like a wrestler–made a brief reconnaissance in the gap between the hose connection and its cap. In the quarter-inch scale of the opening, he loomed like a tyrannosaurus.
A tiny weavil crawled into the northernmost of the streams, got stuck, was pulled slowly toward the edge, and over and (struggling independently with each of six legs and two feelers) down the side of the hydrant, with increasing velocity, over the curving slope of the hose-port, and almost disappeared into the grass before just managing to scramble free.
A ladybug flew into the cone and we watched her (slowly spinning) slowly flow down the rear stream all the way into the grass.
The sunny side of the cone became smooth first, and the shadow side retained for a while the ascending bulges of the ice cream loops. Then both sides smoothed, and the top tilted a little toward the sun. We discussed how it would lean and expected it to tilt the other way, but the cone was not set flat on the hydrant and followed the pull of gravity.
A few minutes later, while I was looking at something else, the cone abruptly fell to the northeast and landed on its top in the grass. I was disappointed to have missed it. Some saw the cone fall, and they described how it toppled over in a single smooth motion. It was evident that the cone had hit the side of the hydrant in falling.
The now very soft ice cream melded perfectly into the grass. It looked like a great gob of Elmer’s Glue poured onto the grass, molding itself around each particular stalk and foxtail. Two or three blades of grass lay on the white ice cream. Their hard green contrasted strongly with the soft glazed melt of the liquid.
In this position, we were able to see the cone more clearly. It had imploded from beneath, and was soft to the touch. There were structural supports built into the mold of the cone: a cross-lattice of paste to give more strength, like the ribs of a seashell. As more ice cream slowly flowed out of the cone, it continued to implode, perhaps from suction.
While nobody was looking, a ladybug we had seen in the grass drowned in the ice cream. I tried to rescue her with a blade of grass, but it was too late. We were sad. Someone called it an occupational hazard. Someone else said that the ladybug deserved a decent burial.
We left her there. Her changing position on the white gob showed how much it was moving over the minutes. The unseen flow of ice cream caused the ladybug to roll over upright again. No ice cream stuck to the smooth, spotless reddish-orange shell.
The ice cream and the grass met in a perfect boundary. I wanted more than anything to feel the ground that closely, not to have edges, to pour myself onto and around and seep into everything. The cone now looked like a dunce hat as the bottom collapsed to a point.
I stuck a grass-stem into the ice cream and pulled it out. It left no hole.
When the cone was down, we could see that the top of the hydrant was flecked with tiny spatters from the dripping ice cream. There were also tiny holes in the yellow paint, left by paint bubbles.
The now stilled rivers of white congealed. Drying bubbles left tiny pock marks, like the footprints of a fly. The white rivers began to turn clear at the edges. We speculated that it would dry mostly clear, like varnish, and leave channels. We wondered if the streaks of ice cream would corrode the hydrant. (Six weeks later, you could still see the faint outline of the ice cream on the top of the hydrant.)
Tiny flies crawled over the hardened white puddles. Two of them copulated. One remained and seemed to taste the edge of the puddle. Its abdomen curled under in spasms. An earwig crawled all the way up to my collar.
I jumped up suddenly and called everybody together again (people wander) to tell them that I had discovered the point of the soft ice cream sculpture. “It’s a demonstration of the fact that the fire hydrant does not melt!” I said excitedly. Someone had not heard, so I repeated it. Then I had to shout it a third time over the sound of the bulldozers clearing out trees in front of Dryden Theater.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” James was saying. “Look at this.” We bent over the tiny flecks of rust on the sides of the hydrant that rubbed off brown on our hands and saw that in its way it, too, was melting. Someone had said earlier that the melting ice cream looked like snow on a mountaintop. In her warm, breathy voice, Pat said, “Look at the hills!”
We slowly scanned the large bowl of hills that holds the college and saw with a shock that they, too, were melting. We looked at the green grass and thought of summer when it burns out to a dry brown. We looked at the palm trees in front of the library, which had not been there a few years ago, and which, in a few decades, would not be there again. Bulldozers tore down the old theater to put up something new, only to tear that down again. I thought of fossils I had seen in the roadbed.
It struck me that all these objects were only pretending to be objects, pretending to be mountains or buildings or ice cream or grass or trees. (I looked again for the drowned ladybug and couldn’t find her.) I tried to tell them what I was suddenly laughing at: The pretense that things are things, when they are really just–when they only look like things because our attention span in so short.
I tried to tell how we could not see the creation and life-span and dissolution of a meson because it happens so fast. I asked if mountains (could they see) would even notice mankind’s ephemeral civilizations. We laughed ourselves silly, tipsy with the thought, pointing at the fire hydrant and the bulldozers and the hills and the rectangular white walls of buildings that try so hard to imitate permanence–when I suddenly became aware of the sound of our laughter and turned to Brian, and Ellen, and Oliver, and saw them with an almost unbearably sweet clarity against the melting mountains–melting.
I wanted to reach out and hold everyone in the class and celebrate this realization–and hide from it. But shyness and the surrounding white certainty of a Catholic college held me back.
We christened the soft ice cream sculpture: “Prospective Memorial to the Rocky Mountains.” To the sun, we concluded, the Rockies must melt like ice cream.
We wondered if M. Greenberg & Sons, San Francisco, were still alive and making fire hydrants. Men cast their titles in iron, and in iron remind themselves that they have sons.
Water from hydrants doesn’t put out fires. It only slows them down to the normal burning pace of wood, and plaster, and flesh, and rusting nails, and slowly, slowly dripping glass that, over the centuries, gets thicker at the bottom of the pane. We, too, melt with the melting mountains.
And yet we have names.