`Amber Waves of Grain': an artist's view of America the embattled

An almost blinding sunlight bounces off the Charles River through the windows of this city's Museum of Science, casting sharp shadows across a field of small ceramic cones and larger missile-shaped objects sprawled across the museum floor, and almost obliterating the view of Boston's skyline behind them. Which may be fitting. Because one-third of these cones represent nuclear warheads that, in the words of Douglas B. Smith, an exhibits planner here, could ``blow away a city of this size. No problem.''

Barbara Donachy's alluring and disturbing exhibit, ``Amber Waves of Grain,'' is a one-for-one miniature representation of America's nuclear arsenal. It displays about 30,000 cones, a dense flight of B-52's hanging from the ceiling, and a long phalanx of Trident submarines stealing through the midst of the cones.

The exhibit was born in 1981 when Donachy and her husband, designer Andy Bardwell, returned from a trip to Europe. There they encountered vocal opposition to the arms buildup and began wondering about a way to bring the giant numbers involved in the nuclear arsenal into some kind of graphic perspective.

They wound up spending $16,000 of their own money researching the US nuclear arsenal and underwriting the equipment and material to build the exhibit.

Miss Donachy was pregnant at the time the project began (her baby was born right after the first ceramic cones were fired), and she told the Monitor by telephone from her Denver home, ``I didn't want to be so shortsighted as to be worrying about diaper rash, and not taking care of bigger things, like nuclear war.''

Donachy tried to bring the unimaginable within the grasp of the imagination, to make us look at things that the conservative columnist George F. Will once called ``so familiar that they no longer seem, as they should, astonishing and disquieting.''

``I wanted it to be very tranquil, not high-tech -- all very earthy,'' she says. ``I wanted something that would be a dichotomy . . . so that people wouldn't just walk away from it. This is something beautiful that represents something awful.''

Wherever it has traveled -- from New York City to the nation's capital to West Germany and now to Boston -- this still, almost tranquil field of earthy cones, which looks very much like a streaked and windy field of wheat, has stirred an emotional response.

``I'm a kid, and I don't want to die!'' one child wrote in the book provided for comments. ``Your impressive display reminds me of a cemetery,'' added another visitor.

``I'm from Hiroshima,'' a young woman on her first visit to the US wrote in Japanese. ``I'm worried that the United States has such military power. But I'm relieved to see that this exhibition is so popular. Nuclear explosions, such as those that occurred in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, should never be repeated.''

Some visitors took encouragement from the exhibit: ``Coming from Eastern Europe, I think that the only -- unfortunately only -- way to keep peace, threatened by the Soviets, is to be ready for all eventualities. The US has the possibility of saving the world as long as she is strong enough.''

Another European began by saying, ``We live in the middle of Pershing bases in Germany and do feel troubled,'' but went on to argue for a need to arm heavily with nuclear weapons.

The exhibit, which leaves here for Rockford, Ill., on March 2, has been updated by this museum to reflect the current size of the arsenal. The musuem has also paired it with an exhibit from the Cleveland Health Education Museum entitled ``The Atom: Peril and Promise,'' which more graphically depicts the effects of nuclear weapons, as well as technical questions relating to the uses and abuses of nuclear power. In this companion exhibit, artists portray -- in styles ranging from primitive to sophisticated -- the ``unforgettable fire'' of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Judging from their reactions, though, the quiet simplicity of ``Amber Waves of Grain'' seems to have a more immediate impact on visitors.

One tall, bearded man read the accompanying wall charts showing the size and destructive power of the nuclear arsenal, shook his head and walked away.

Later, four elderly women happened by. ``It gives me the creeps,'' one said. ``It's insane,'' added another. Then they engaged in a lengthy impromptu discussion of nuclear disarmament.

``Do these things hurt?'' one schoolboy asked.

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