One recent Saturday, the head of Harvard University’s endowment pulled out his sheet metal cutters and began painstakingly carving up old license plates.
It was the start of Stephen Blyth’s latest art creation, blending an obsession for maps and travel with mathematic expression. To make one of his signature metal maps, he sheared the form of Texas out of Massachusetts plates, and carved California, with its curvy coastline, from Connecticut plates.
Filling the place of Massachusetts on his large map of the country: Alabama. But why?
That’s what he wants you to figure out. After piecing the states together, on foam board with tile adhesive, and bonding all the edges with black caulking, Blyth gamely prods friends and colleagues to suss out the formula behind the piece.
“One of the most fun parts is deciding which part of the plate to use,’’ Blyth said. Maine’s lobster. Wyoming’s cowboy.
Fun has been in rather short supply at the $37.6 billion Harvard endowment of late. Blyth, a 47-year-old Englishman, took the top job at the world’s largest education fund in January and is in the midst of an overhaul to improve lagging investment returns. That’s led to upheaval, with a new investment approach in the works and a review of the group’s generous compensation.
Little surprise that Blyth has sought a diversion from the stress. His art has served as a similar refuge in the past, like after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when, as a trader at Morgan Stanley, he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse from his office in midtown. While the map’s permutations thrill him, that time, he made a straight-up version (each plate in its proper state) called “Land of Enchantment.”
“I find it very therapeutic,” Blyth said. “The mind settles.”
A newer version hangs in his office, the plates of the most populous states assigned to those that are the physically largest on the map. There’s a separate one of Africa and another of Europe. The cover of his Quantitative Finance textbook features a dollar sign made of license plate digits. “Financial Engineering,” as it’s called, hints at “creating money from numbers,” according to notes from his 2013 exhibit at the Public Library of Brookline.
Blyth’s most intricate, and witty, piece depicts the United Kingdom and its ancient historic counties, but words, instead of numbers, are at play.
The title of his newest work gives away its secret. The “United States of Education” ranks states by percent of their population of residents with college degrees, and then scrambles the map based on the results. Massachusetts is No. 1, according to the US census data Blyth used, with 38 percent holding college degrees. Thus the Bay State’s plate is used to depict Texas, the biggest US state in the Lower 48. West Virginia ranked 48th in graduates, so its plate is used to cover Rhode Island, the smallest of the contiguous states.
“West Virginia is always hard,” Blyth said, fretting over a tricky slice jammed between Ohio and Pennsylvania. “It has this bit that sticks up.’’