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The Circle of the World

On display in the Triangle Lounge in the Commons of SUNY Corning Community College, there are four paintings by John Runyon that ostensibly depict the changing seasons on the CCC campus. However, these four paintings show a lot more about the history of the college and the vision that the college’s founders had about CCC than just simple renditions of the weather.

The late John Runyon was one of the original art instructors at CCC, and, beyond teaching classes in drawing and painting, he also taught architectural drawing courses. Within his lectures in the architecture course, he would point out that architecture is just as much a symbolic art as painting, sculpture, drawing, or any other of the artistic media. To illustrate his point, he would turn to the original buildings at CCC and speak of the symbolism revealed through the architecture of those buildings, a symbolism often unnoticed and unappreciated even by people who believe themselves to be very familiar with the buildings and grounds of the college.

John Runyon created those four paintings of the seasons at CCC not to be representations of natural scenes of campus, but to be illustrations to remind us of the ideal for which this college was intended.

These paintings show us that the original campus of CCC was designed as an ancient Orbis Terrarum map—a map of the circle of the world. An Orbis Terrarum map represented the world as it was known in medieval times. It was unlike modern maps in that it had Asia at its top (hence, the term “orient” when we align a map or determine our position someplace). Africa was at the right side of an O-T map, and Europe was on the left, separated from Africa by the ocean in the middle of the world—the Mediterranean. At the center of an Orbis Terrarum was the Middle East. John Runyon knew of the Orbis Terrarum, and his four paintings are also maps to the forgotten history of CCC.

If we start with John Runyon’s painting of autumn, we see the Commons Building as it originally appeared. Much of the original appearance of the building is now obscured by recent additions. At its inception, Commons was designed as a Chinese siheyuan courtyard house. The roofline, which can still be seen from some angles, is the traditional Far Eastern hip-and-gable or resting-hill roof. The courtyard has now been filled in to make an administrative area, but originally it was an internal, open-air space with walkways, tall white birch trees, plantings and statuary. The entire building was meant to symbolize the Far East and the Eastern philosophy of the harmonious integration of the works of humanity and the beauty of the nature world.

Next in the series of John Runyon’s paintings is the winter scene showing the Science Amphitheater and part of the Schuyler Building. The Science Amphitheater was designed to represent a Mesopotamian ziggurat, symbolizing the Middle East at the center of the Orbis Terrarum. This symbol, representing the cradle of civilization and the foundation of modern human culture, including writing, mathematics, science, technology, literature, and other human achievements, also sits at the center of the CCC campus.

John Runyon’s painting of spring shows the Parson’s Administrative Building. The building’s roof is constructed as a pyramid symbolizing Africa in the Orbis Terrarum. The contributions of Africa to human culture are vast, including alphabetic writing, art, architecture, literature, engineering, and so forth. The pyramids themselves were such gargantuan undertakings that the process of their construction still baffles modern engineers.

The painting of summer in John Runyon’s series shows the Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., Library. The library’s design was intended to reflect the Long Room of the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin, although a new addition to the front of the Houghton Library hinders a complete view of the exterior of the building. The library’s construction represents the European vaulted arch and symbolizes Europe and the significance of European culture in the Orbis Terrarum, while the library itself stands as a physical representation of the accumulation of human knowledge and endeavor.

In total, the Runyon paintings are themselves symbolic and designed to reveal the intended meaning of the architecture of the original buildings on the CCC campus. That architecture was meant to show the campus of this college as the symbolic fusion of the achievements of the great cultures of human history. (Admittedly, the Americas and Oceana are left out, but more from the paucity of archeological knowledge in the 1950’s than as deliberate omissions. It’s too bad that the Steuben Building wasn’t designed with hints of a Mayan temple and the dormitory with the suggestion of the moai of Rapa Nui.)

Even though some of the original architecture and design of the campus and its buildings have been obscured by well meaning, but perhaps not well informed, people, the essence of the overall metaphor of CCC still endures and still can be appreciated. John Runyon composed his series of seasonal paintings of SUNY Corning Community College as a reminder to appreciate the enduring purpose of this college.

By former CCC dean Byron Shaw

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