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Art Students Engage Bethel Community with Evocative Portable Monument Sculpture

Art Students Engage Bethel Community with Evocative Portable Monument Sculpture

Professor of Art Ken Steinbach’s Sculpture 1 class created a “portable monument,” in fall 2017. The piece has been featured in multiple locations throughout Bethel’s campus, including the Lundquist Community Life Center (CLC)—and that’s the point. (Photo Credit: Kurt Jarvi ’18)

Near the end of fall semester, students in Professor of Art Ken Steinbach’s Sculpture 1 class snickered while wheeling their massive creation past quiet classrooms, through the Bethel kitchen, and out onto a loading dock. It was one of the only ways they could transport the piece—dubbed The Portable Monument—around campus and meet their goal of observing it interact with and “disrupt” different environments. “It was an inconvenient sort of project,” says Bethany Burggraf ’19, one of the six students who worked on it. “Which is the point!” classmate Aimee Kuiper ’21 says.

On their first day of class, Steinbach engaged students in conversation about the ways art—particularly sculptures—had been making headlines recently. Controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments around the country ignited over the summer and, even closer to home, a scaffold sculpture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had created an uproar. “How could we not talk about it?” Steinbach says. “We had a conversation about it, and I just said, ‘We’re going to do something collaboratively [this semester] that deals with these ideas.’”

Collaborative projects are a favorite of Steinbach’s, because they give students hands-on experience and result in a more complete finished project that helps them understand art’s place in the world outside of academia. “It changes the way students see their education,” Steinbach says. “So the students don’t work for instructors nearly as much. They tend to work a lot more for truer motives. They’re making work for people, for communities.”

For this project, the class decided to construct a plinth—an elevated base or stand that statues are placed on. “If you asked any random person on the street, the chances are that they probably wouldn’t be able to draw a picture of the statue that’s on top of the plinth—they just care that it’s elevated over anything else,” says Matt Bonvino ’19, another student who worked on the project. By constructing a plinth—and including a ladder that allowed others to climb on top of it—students hoped their peers would be challenged to consider the things they value or raise above all others. And, because the structure was placed publically in the Bethel community, it also sought to challenge Bethel as a whole to think critically and dialogue thoughtfully about how the institution approaches controversy.

“We didn’t want to divide more than the country is already divided,” says student artist Lizzy Hankerson ’19. That’s why—rather than attempting to portray a particular stance—the group posted open-ended questions on the interactive piece. These included:

  • What does it mean to place a monument in different locations? How does its meaning change if it is placed in a public square, a cemetery, a museum, or university?
  • Who do we commemorate, and why? What agendas do these choices represent?
  • How do different groups perceive the same monument?

Steinbach says the class was careful to shape those questions in a way that circumvented partisans, “so two people who were theoretically very different could have a conversation.” But achieving neutrality while evoking critical thinking and open dialogue wasn’t an easy task. “It was a very polarizing issue,” Steinbach says. “And we weren’t without opinions in this class.”

To help meet their goal, the class solicited the help of Chief Diversity Officer Ruben Rivera, who came and spoke with them early in the semester about how controversy on campus can drive dialogue rather than animosity.

“What we’re trying to do is challenge, support. Challenge, support,” Rivera says. “[Bethel] isn’t just about acquiring knowledge and craft. It’s very much about nurturing what it means to be a Christ-centered, good human being.” Rivera encouraged the students to create the sculpture because he believed it would ultimately contribute to self-discovery and spreading shalom on campus. “Because a ton of people are very familiar with the controversy about monuments, it strikes an image,” he says. “You go up there, I’m up there. What does it mean that I took the time or had the audacity to put myself up on a pedestal?” By starting a conversation and evoking these questions, Rivera says the project helps to turn the “fire” from this controversy into a “light.”

Consistent with this missive, The Portable Monument made its debut in the Bethel University Library during a Primetime discussion between Steinbach and his colleagues on the implications of removing historical monuments. The sculpture later made appearances in Bethel’s Brushaber Commons, and the Lundquist Community Life Center. Presently, the plastered plywood structure is facing the elements in a second-level courtyard—a final artistic experiment. “[Will it] become something that people [still] think about or use?” Burggraf asks. “Does it become part of the Bethel environment?”

What’s next? “It’s going to President Barnes’s house!” Burggraf jokes. Ultimately, the students hope that as the monument’s painted façade peals away, it will reveal a deeper truth to the community—about what literally and metaphorically occurs in the underbelly of a public display. “That kind of goes back to what’s going on in different parts of the world and the U.S.” student and contributor Cassandra (Cassie) Dixon ’20 says. “These monuments are being put in places that make people feel uncomfortable. But people don’t really comment on who is feeling uncomfortable about it. So we just put it there.”

Learn more about the hands-on creative projects produced by the Department of Art and Design.