LEHI — In a room that smells like cloves, dozens of artists bend over illuminated tables with tiny paintbrushes, making painstaking progress on a project nearly 12 years in the works.
Some have been working so hard — 70 to 80 hours a week as of late — that the aroma of clove oil, a glass-binding agent, accompanies them home.
Next door, colleagues are firing up shards of glass, edging them in copper or lead and applying streams of heat to bind them together.
The Chicago Ferris Wheel creaks to life on a pane of glass. Emily Dickinson’s delicate face stares up from the table. A worker assembles hundreds of pieces of glass into a rendering of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," with Thomas Edison plucking a bright star out of the sky.
The studio where Lehi-based stained glass artist Thomas Holdman and co-designer Cameron Oscarson have labored for years is a fantastical place.
Holdman, whose glass creations have graced LDS temples in Palmyra, Rome and Paris, has been obsessed with one "little idea" for the past decade: figuring out a way to portray the vast history of human knowledge in a work of stained glass.
Holdman said he shopped the idea to several institutions before Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland pounced on it.
Holland, who had assumed the presidency just weeks before the artist approached him in 2009, said he felt “instantaneous recognition that it was something fantastic.”
UVU had grown explosively since its founding during World War II as a vocational school. Now the largest university in the state with 33,000 students — and quickly approaching its 75th anniversary — Holland had just one request for Holdman: Make it bigger.
When completed, “Roots of Knowledge” will rise 10 feet in the air, stretch 240 feet across the school's undulating library wall and contain more than 80,000 pieces of hand-painted glass. One panel, depicting Alexander the Great, includes nearly 3,000 pieces alone.
Holland said he recognizes the challenges that accompany a project as ambitious as this one, most notably the danger of falling into a “narrow, ideological, culturally dominant point of view.”
To counter that, the school brought in professors on a monthly basis to contribute ideas and correct inaccuracies, he said.
Administrators also recruited hundreds of students to provide project management assistance, research and artistic skills. Several are now working on an app to help viewers decode the thousands of references embedded in the work.
The work begins with an image of one of the oldest living organisms in the world, a bristlecone pine nicknamed Methuselah located in eastern California, and ends with a rendering of the world’s largest skyscrapers in one cityscape.
In between, 78 panes of stained glass trail through entire civilizations, work their way through the invention of the telephone, touch down in Harlem to witness the Renaissance, visit with the leaders of the women's suffrage movement in America, Kublai Khan in China and the Jameh Mosque in Iran.
In one panel, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams write the Declaration of Independence by candlelight. In another, a tiny Isaac Newton stands on the shoulder of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a nod to the physicists’ famous words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
When inspired, "why can we not all do the same thing for others, and also the future?" Holdman said.
Holdman and Oscarson also layered dozens of found objects into the glass, such as fossils, meteorite fragments and real U.S. currency from the 18th century.
They also couldn’t resist hiding dozens of playful "Easter eggs" in the work: Look closely and you may find Jones’ fedora, Disney villains and a tiny Loch Ness monster the size of your thumb.
The artists and administrators will have to decide how many of the references they will publicize — and how many they want to leave unmarked, for people to discover on their own.
"We want people to be involved and be astounded by the artwork. But at the same time, if that’s the only thing they come away from the art piece feeling, we’ve failed in a sense," Oscarson said. "We want them to have this experience where they’re actually growing and learning and enjoying art."
Holland called the project — funded through $2.6 million in private donations — "the ultimate engaged learning tool,” a nod to the school’s focus on hands-on education.
Holdman and Oscarson are making a mad dash to the finish line and have hired nearly 30 helpers in the past month to help them make their Halloween deadline. Posters taped up around the studio remind them: "52 days left."
"It keeps us motivated," Oscarson said. "Or at least scared."
Said Holdman: "I've needed to tell the story of humanity more than I've needed oxygen to breathe."
But in two short months, the artist can stop holding his breath — or he will be forced to by administrators who have set the date of the unveiling for Nov. 18.
"An artist is never done with an art piece," Holland said with a wink. "He just runs out of time.”
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