1974 was truly a memorable year. Hungarian sculptor and passionate professor of architecture, Erno Rubik, invented the Rubik’s Cube – the world’s top-selling puzzle game. The serpentine road leading to Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, brought the very first cohort of global students to the shores of Vancouver Island – Canada’s own United World College.
When it debuted, conspiracy theorists proclaimed that the Rubik’s Cube was, “An Eastern block tactic to distract American youth from their educations.” The bold experiment that is Pearson College, brought together young people whose experience was of the political conflict of the cold war era, offering an education based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding – mobilizing students to act as champions of peace.
For almost forty years, these uniquely different, innovative experiments have continued to spawn and build on the concept of challenge – and now the College, and the Cube, are being united through art.
In honour of the 50th anniversary of becoming the 14th Prime Minister of Canada, the driving force behind the establishment of the college, and its namesake, Lester B. Pearson, has become a primary subject of Rubikcubism. Second-year Pearson College student from Syria, Layth Yousif – known by close friends and classmates as Leo – is inspired by Pearson, one of the most influential men in Canadian history.
Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. He introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the current Canadian flag. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he offered, “Of all our dreams today there is none more important – or so hard to realize – than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
As a student who hails from an area of conflict, Leo has profoundly impacted the Pearson College community. “When I was four years old, my family emigrated from Syria to Chicago. I spent eleven years surrounded by graffiti art before moving back to Syria when I was fifteen,”he says. “Old Arabic houses and mosques use a similar technique where one can see words spelled out in blocks, but there is very little graffiti in Syria.”
Thanks to the powers of Photoshop, Leo converted an iconic photo of Pearson into a pixelated image – Rubikcubism ready – in less than twenty minutes.
Leo working on his piece - to be officially unveiled on April 11th
“I had the idea to do the mosaic last year – what kept me from doing the project were the cubes and associated costs,” Leo says. “I was inspired by the French graffiti artist, ‘Invader’,” he adds. “He’s a creative genius who pioneered the street art movement.” Invader’s pixilated aliens, inspired by the video game Space Invaders, can be found in major cities all over the world. The “guerilla-art” guru coined the term Rubikcubism and is prolific using Rubik’s Cube as his medium of choice. Pearson joins the auspicious ranks of The Mona Lisa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mick Jagger, to name a few.
“It’s ultimately an exploration of graffiti,” Leo says, adding that graffiti has had a bad reputation in the modern world, but is now being used more widely for advertising and commercial purposes.
And a costly medium it is – at a price tag of $10 per cube ($1 per cube for a knock-off), Leo’s venture had a $12,000 expense attached to it. He needed 1,200 cubes to do the piece.
And so a note was penned – “Dear Rubik’s Representative…”
Without further ado, 1,200 Official Rubik’s Cubes were offered on loan and promptly delivered to campus. Each cube is made up of twenty-six miniature cubes, also called "cubies" or "cubelets", and one side represents 9 pixels of the Pearson image.
Leo's room with boxes of Official Rubik's Cubes
“The timing is perfect because I need eighteen pieces for my IB art exam,” Leo shares. “I have a little yellow book of ideas that provides inspiration, so when I needed an eighteenth project, it was on the top of my list.”
More than sixty students came forward to help, each signing out a line of cubes to manipulate them into colourful patterns. “White is white, black becomes blue – and yellow, orange and red provide the shades of grey,” says Leo, sharing his process. “The background was pretty interesting on this one, so I had to play with the colours a bit to add some detail and texture.”
Anjiya from Kenya lends a hand
“The main concern up until a couple of days ago was the frame – we now have that dialled,” he said, adding that college staff have been very supportive of his project and problem-solving the finer details. “The piece will be angled so that the cubes rest in the box as they are stacked on one another.”
Wade Davis, Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society, will have the honour of placing the final cube, thus completing the piece. Davis will be on campus offering his Wayfinders presentation for the annual James A. Coutts Lecture Series on World Affairs on April 11th, named in honour of the Chair of Pearson College of the Pacific Foundation Board and former Secretary to Lester B. Pearson.
Participating in the mosaic offers Davis, renowned Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and photographer, a small taste of the Pearson College experience, something he shares that he has coveted for years.
“I very much look forward to coming to Pearson College, for I first wanted to attend as a young man and later dreamed of teaching at such a wonderful school,” he shares.
The piece will be 7-feet tall by 5-feet wide and will live in Max Bell Hall lobby for only a few short weeks – after which it will be dismantled and shipped back to the Rubik’s Cube Mosaic Lending Library, each cube snuggled back in its original box and ready for the next big idea.
“I am not sure if Wade Davis will get on a ladder or not – I could always do it for him,” offers Leo.
Not likely to be an issue for Davis. Let’s travel back again to the year 1974, when at the age of 20, Davis crossed the Darién Gap – a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama’s Darién Province from Colombia – on foot in the company of the celebrated English author and amateur explorer, Sebastian Snow. Certainly, Davis’ own journey is a unique recipe of adventure and challenge.
Leo’s last IB exam is scheduled on the 20th of May. The piece will be packed up in the days to follow. He is scheduled to bid Pearson College adieu on the 24th of May and join a worldwide community of alumni.
“Dear Mr. Pearson, in the 21st century, you are super hip to be square...”
Official unveiling is scheduled on April 11th