KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Efforts are in full swing to put the finishing touches on a new iconic feature for Western Michigan University's main campus that will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Friday, April 24.
The icon, a representation of the WMU seal, stands 23 feet tall overall inside the turnaround in front of the Sangren Hall pedestrian mall.
It is the final project for the mall, which is the University's new principal location for large outdoor events. Designed by Kalamazoo artist Joshua Diedrich, the icon creates a more inviting entry to that area and is a visual reminder of WMU's history and close ties to the local community.
"It's a very ambitious piece that involved a lot of people, most of them local," Diedrich says. "Everybody has been tested a bit, but I think it really turned into something pretty incredible.
The icon's core component—a 12-foot-in-diameter WMU seal—rests atop a concrete cylinder that juts out at a 40-degree angle. The seal's elements are cast in bronze and set on a bed of speckled brown-and-gold granite. One element, a stylized tree of knowledge, rises 17 feet in the air.
Diedrich has hidden low-relief pictures of older campus architecture and University community members in various parts of the tree. Except for a football player, all the people pictured are real. They included Dwight B. Waldo, WMU's first president, and John M. Dunn, current president.
Final concrete work and landscaping as well as completion of the fountains will take place over the next 10 days. When finished, the icon will have two ringed fountains, with water cascading into a scalloped reflecting pool. Landscaping and programmable LED lights that change color will complete the project. Gifts funded $270,000 of the $658,249 cost while the remainder came from business and finance dollars set aside for campus projects.
Creating the icon
Diedrich was approached about designing the icon in 2013 and commissioned in 2014. He also provided the concept for the water features and, essentially, made the seal and tree.
"For the most part, the icon was designed to create a sense of impressiveness and gravitas and seriousness. But I really wanted to humanize it and reward people for looking more closely at the impressive facade—to realize that there's actually depth and complexity beneath that," he says.
"Putting in the subtle pictures and portraits was my way to add some deeper artistic content than just the University logo. Some of the reliefs are obvious enough that you might be able to see them from a distance. It's possible that some of them will never be seen because they're too small and hidden too high."
To start the project, Diedrich built models of a 15-foot and 20-foot tree and erected them at the site so they could be seen in scale. He began shaping the tree after it was decided a 17-foot tree would be optimal.
"It's a very elaborate process. For each of the leaves and each of the branches, I actually made a clay version first. Basically, I made the original clay version, made a plaster mold of that, poured wax into the mold, worked the wax and added sculpted reliefs. At that point, it had its final form and went to the foundry," Diedrich explains.
"The foundry took the wax pieces and encased them in a ceramic shell. They melted out my wax pieces and poured liquid bronze in the space where the wax used to be. So we ended up creating and destroying each piece five times. I destroyed the first three and the foundry the last two."
Huge local connection
Diedrich says he chose Alchemist Sculpture Foundry in Kalamazoo to do all of the casting because of its well-known reputation as a high-quality sculpture foundry and both of its owners, Brett Kuipers and Brent Harris, are WMU alumni.
He also praises the innovative concrete work done by Van Laan Concrete Construction Inc. in Dutton to form the seal's angled cylindrical base and the architectural planning done by Kingscott and Associates in Kalamazoo, especially Kingscott's Daniel Tryles, who did the icon's blueprints.
"It was a good process," Diedrich says of working with Tryles. "I came up with ideas and he made them more practical and added in some nice touches, like the granite that's facing along the waterfall area."
Nearly all of the other key work also was completed by local firms:
- Construction management—Kalleward Group, Kalamazoo.
- Electrical work—Kalamazoo Electric Inc., Kalamazoo.
- Excavating—James E. Fulton & Sons Excavating Contractors, Kalamazoo.
- Fountain equipment—The Fountain People, San Marcos, Texas.
- Irrigation—Wolverine Lawn Services Inc., Kalamazoo.
- Landscaping work—Prudential Nursery Co., Vicksburg.
- Plumbing work—CL Mahoney Co. Inc., Kalamazoo.
- Stone work—Granite Works, Portage.
Artist Joshua Diedrich
Diedrich grew up in Paw Paw. Many of his family members are WMU alumni. Hidden in the leaves of the icon's bronze tree are his sister, who attended for two years, and father, who earned a master's degree.
Mesmerized by the human form at a young age, the artist began studying life drawing and figure sculpture in an adult program at the Kalamazoo Institute for the Arts at age 15. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in sculpture and drawing from the University of Michigan and to study and work as a teaching assistant at a sculpture academy in France for three years.
Diedrich has been working as a full-time sculptor since moving to Kalamazoo in 2005 to establish his studio. He has taught anatomy at the KIA, and was the sculpture department head there for four years. Now, he runs a teaching studio, takes on apprentices in figurative art and sculpture, and produces his own work as well as commissioned pieces.
For a biography and examples of Diedrich's work, visit joshuadiedrich.com.
The WMU seal
Now in its fifth incarnation, the WMU seal was designed by the late John Kemper, a WMU professor emeritus of art, when the institution became a university in 1957.
- The five stars symbolize WMU's five original schools, Applied Arts (Engineering and Applied Sciences), Business, Education, Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Graduate Studies.
- The tree signifies WMU's continuing growth. Its roots acknowledge the institution's firm planting when created by the Michigan Legislature in 1903.
- The stone arch signifies a gateway to knowledge as well as solid growth, but the missing keystone indicates that WMU's growth is incomplete, as there is much more to accomplish and discover.
- The pyramid, which stands for the building of knowledge, features a flame at its apex to signify enlightenment—WMU's true purpose.
For more information about the new icon, contact Shannon Sauer-Becker, WMU construction administrator for the project, at email@example.com or (269) 387-8502.
For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.