WMU News

Two new works join WMU's permanent collection

Oct. 30, 1997

KALAMAZOO -- Two new sculptures have been installed on the Western Michigan University campus as part of its permanent art collection this fall.

The bronze pieces are located on the southwest side of the Waldo Library/Computing Center complex. One of the life-like sculptures, titled "Campus Talk," depicts a group of three students, complete with belongings ranging from backpacks to a violin case to a bicycle, conversing on their way across campus. The other piece, "The Professor," is of a faculty member walking along, sport coat flying, reading one book and holding another under his arm.

Both works are by Dennis Smith, an artist from Highland, Utah, and were commissioned by WMU President Diether H. Haenicke. The project was funded through private donations.

"Adding art works to our public places is an essential part of our campus beautification program," Haenicke said. "With the acquisition of these sculptures, I responded to the wishes of many students to have some more representational art in our sculpture collection. The new pieces complement the many fine abstract and environmental sculptures already installed on campus."

Haenicke first became interested in Smith's sculpture a year and a half ago after seeing a brochure on his work. Much of Smith's art focuses on the creation of exuberant bronze figures of children, which are exhibited in 14 galleries throughout the United States. He also has installed works at American embassies in London, Prague and Moscow. In addition to specializing in gallery-size pieces, Smith is particularly experienced in the creation of life-size compositions integrated into gardens and as landscape and interior enhancements for major building projects.

After speaking with Haenicke by telephone and seeing pictures of WMU's campus, Smith produced a series of sketches and models. For inspiration, he visited campuses in the Salt Lake City area and took photographs of students conversing on their way to class. As with many of his works of young people, Smith said he tried to convey a sense of wonder and awe with those pieces.

The idea for the look of the professor came more quickly to Smith. "I just immediately saw the gesture of him totally buried in his book, walking along," he said. Smith, who also writes poetry and a column for Salt Lake City's daily newspaper, said the image of James Thurber's Walter Mitty character played a part. "I thought of this guy preoccupied in his own world," he said.

Once Haenicke approved a full-scale model, the figures were caste in bronze. Smith said the pieces are actually a few inches larger than life-size so that they appear more to scale in the vast exterior space. The bronze for the pieces is textured, rather than smooth like many more traditional sculptures of people.

"The key was to do something that had a textural dynamic about it that enhanced the aesthetic focus so that it wasn't just portraiture," Smith said. "I didn't want to do sculptures that felt like they were trying to be people."

The artist explained that he approaches some of his work from a more conservative perspective, while he also has a progressive side and assembles pieces that are totally abstract.

"What I tried to do with these sculptures was to kind of bridge that gap," he said. "I wanted to do something that had a textural vitality and an aesthetic strength to it and, at the same time, pull it enough into a traditionalist mode that most people could feel comfortable with it."

These new permanent pieces complement the 14 traveling works installed on campus this year as part of the WMU Sculpture Tour Program.

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