Purdue’s Sculpture Park: “Jewels and Shine”

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 10/07/2010

Victor M. Cassidy

Wherever you find artists, you find art. In Northwestern Indiana, which is best known for its dunes, there’s the Lubeznik Center for the Arts with its ambitious schedule of shows and events, a lively gallery scene, and Purdue University North Central (PNC) in Westville, with an outdoor sculpture park that should be better known.

Dessa Kirk's "Demeter" rises out of a base that is overgrown with morning glories

Located in the countryside about sixty minutes from Chicago, the spacious PNC campus is ideal for outdoor sculpture. There’s plenty of room to show each piece to its best advantage. On any given day, visitors can expect to find at least 25 sculptures there, sometimes many more. PNC owns some of the work, but artists have leased most of it to the university. Everybody wins: PNC gets a constantly changing outdoor sculpture show and the artists pocket a fee, sometimes make a sale.

Among the works on campus are Dessa Kirk’s Demeter, a 12-ft.-high steel and fiberglass figure of a woman dancer-goddess clad in leaf forms who bears a remarkable resemblance to the artist. Kirk’s 14-ft.-high steel and fiberglass Demeter could be the sister of Emilee, Kirk’s piece that previously graced the campus. She rises out of a base that’s overgrown with morning glories. Eric Stephenson’s Emergence #11 (Free Spirit), a 9.5-ft.-high steel sculpture, also suggests a dancer, but just the legs are there—one raised and the other straight up and down. Michael Dunbar’s 10-ft.-high steel plate Jendiva is a massive painted form that celebrates engineering and industry. Michele Lanning’s O Positive, an indoor piece, is five bronze saucers, each two ft. across that resemble red blood cells.

John Adduci's "Running Arch", decorated with a giant yellow tassle

John Adduci’s Running Arch, a 22-ft.-high aluminum arch with a flat top and legs that curve in both directions like a running man, is the all-out student favorite at PNC. On graduation day, seniors decorate it with a giant yellow tassel, stand in front, cheer, and throw their mortar boards in the air.

At one time or another, fifty additional artists have exhibited at PNC. Among them are Michael Young, S. Thomas Scarff, Jessica Swift, Bob Emser, Ted Sitting Crow Garner, Mike Helbing, Eric Nordgulen, Terry Karpowicz, Richard Heinrich, Peter J. Smith-Phillips, John Mishler, David Noguchi, Kara James, Don Wenig, Philip Shore, Fritz Olsen, Brian Monaghan, Barry Tinsley, Christine Rojek, Ron Gard, Rob Lorenson, Travis Lanning, John Bannon, Dusty Folwarczny, David Nelson, Bruce White, Richard Kiebdaj, Joseph Hunt, Christopher Furman, Kanri Nakano, Faheem Majeed, Fisher Stoltz, Preston Jackson, Rojelio Tijerna, Wayne Rice, Austin Collins, Zelda Werner, Fritz Olsen, Isaac Duncan III, Debra Sawyer, Stephen Hokanson, Sherry Giryotas, Bruce Niemi, Mike Grucza and Jason Poteet. John Henry leased his spectacular 70.5-ft. Star Pointer to PNC and the campus poured a 22-ft. concrete pad for it, but he had to take it back for an exhibition in Florida.

S. Thomas Scarff's "Windfighter". A strong statement of victory in stainless steel. The American Flag is displayed memorializing the events of September 11, 2001

S. Thomas Scarff, who has made sculpture in Chicago for thirty-plus years, and Judy Jacobi, PNC’s Assistant Vice-Chancellor of Marketing and Campus Relations, jointly curate the park. “I liken the campus to a curvy, well-dressed woman,” says Scarff. “My goal is to add jewels and shine to this beautiful form.” Many colleges have started such programs, he adds, but they often fail because of Art Department politics and lack of funds. From the park’s inception in 1999, Scarff insisted that PNC treat sculptors as professionally as they would a world-class violinist or engineer.

Jacobi and Scarff got the park started in the late 1990s. Jacobi approached Scarff, asking him to create a sculpture for Michigan City, Indiana’s Sinai Temple. The two hit it off and in conversation developed a plan for PNC to lease large-scale sculptures for its campus. Higher-ups bought this idea and the constantly-changing sculpture exhibition has created “a special branding” for PNC, says Jacobi.

S. Thomas Scarff "Icarus" Aluminum, LED lights 24'h 6'w 5'd 2009

“How do artists get to show?” we asked. Scarff said that he knows most sculptors in the Chicago area—and he’s “always looking and asking who has large-scale works and ideas.” After he’s developed a list of possibilities, he and Jacobi sit down and plan the next season. If an artist is chosen, he/she can expect to receive a fee for a year’s lease of their work. Since this covers transportation, installation costs, and income to the artist, most of the work at PNC has come from the immediate area.

There is some informal interaction between exhibiting artists and PNC’s student body. Some of the artists visit classes and lecture. Many students have the opportunity to learn more about the work through formal tours and curricular requirements. More than 2,000 children have visited the campus in the last 2 years. Scarff organized a show of PNC sculptors at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, which connected the artists to the community. PNC has plans to create an indoor art gallery and show smaller-scale work, but everything’s on hold until funds become available.

Scarff, who’s paid a stipend for his work, says that his circle of sculpture friends has grown “ten-fold” since his relationship with PNC began in about 1999. “I adopt almost every piece that comes along,” he says, “and learn what I can from each and every artist.” He looks to the future with enthusiasm. “I promise many changes” in October, he states. “We’ll have an energetic group of new thinkers here. The jewelry is always changing.”

For more information or to make an appointment for a group tour, contact Judy Jacobi at jjacobi@pnc.edu. Visit www.pnc.edu for a view of the works on campus now.