Who Am I? Exhibition
Francis Miller (American, b. 1962)
Steel and stone
Gift of the artist. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Most of my visits to Ames inspire me, not to mention the free time in the evenings without my usual family obligations, to draw. My stay while working on the Marston Muses led me to think about Marston, the use of the figure and monument. I made the attached sculptural model with found materials from the Marston Hall renovation, minus the bronze of the figure. The basic notion of my model is that "monument" often glorifies achievement, often rightfully so, but doesn’t represent struggle to accomplish what ever notable character or creation literally being displayed on a pedestal in the form of a given person. So I wanted to literally stand that model on its head, and have a sense of struggle, real hardship present, and to have the figure support the achievement, in this case, an iron I-beam for Marston's wonderfully engineered structures, such as the water tank (harkening the Eiffel Tower). The figure rests on a terra cotta tile, a simple symbol of the earth and reference to his miraculous terra cotta and steel roof structure in Marston Hall, as well as a tribute to Christian Petersen/Art on Campus Collection, a true foundation for all that is art on campus. The plate below is ballast, with the letter "F" cut into it for identification and placement in the Marston structure (I thought the "F" was also fate, and my initial).
Conservator and artist
Sounds are louder in extreme heat. I remember reading about this phenomenon in a study conducted in Egypt in the height of a summer heat wave. Apparently on a hot day, traffic in Cairo can cause lasting hearing damage. So it’s unsurprising that when I think of Marston Hall, I immediately remember walking on plywood over a third-floor I-beam during the renovation of the building. It was an extremely hot day and when I think about my trepidation walking three stories up in the hollowed-out engineering hall, all I can hear are the sounds of industrial fans cutting the hot air of the construction site. As a University Museums employee in 2015, I was the person fortunate enough to work with Francis Miller during one of his many visits to Iowa State to preserve the legacy of Christian Petersen’s artwork throughout campus.
On this occasion, Francis was conserving the Marston Muses, the four goddesses on the building’s exterior who govern mining, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering. It is fitting that Miller’s sculpture, as the exhibition suggests, is itself a study in perspective and narrative framework.
As I write this, we are engaged in local, national and international debates about the meaning and symbolism of monuments. These conversations are ubiquitous precisely because they strike at the very core of cultural and institutional memory which seeks to memorialize a person, a myth, a legend. At the heart of present debates about monuments is the process by which a figurehead comes to be recognized for their achievements. Prescient then, that this sculpture is a literal representation about what happens when you invert the traditional archetype of commemoration and instead, render a sculpture which memorializes not just a man, but the process by which we come to know his name. In the case of Anson Marston, an admired civil servant and engineer, this reconfigured monument is more than a tribute to the man, it becomes itself a feat of engineering and a testament to his legacy. Rather than obfuscating the challenges Marston faced, the sculpture deliberately illuminates the process by which he became revered. Perhaps most importantly, this sculpture reimagines the relationship between art and commemoration. Reminiscent of the abstraction of Greek and Roman sculpture, this monument is as much allegory as it is art. In this way, it becomes a regenerative testament to the storytelling capacity of monuments and sculpture; while made of lasting materials, sculptures are never monolithic. The salvaged materials and balance of the composition express a technical proficiency as much as the all-too-overlooked truth that while the path to achievement is celebrated, it is never without trials and tribulations.
For me, the raw materials—the I-beam and blocks—conjure not only the disarray of the Marston Hall construction site but also the unruliness of the world in which we live and the stories that continue to resonate amidst the noise of life.
PhD candidate and former University Museums employee