Who Am I? Exhibition
Christian Petersen (Danish – American, 1885–1961)
Gift of the Class of 1919. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
…Petersen’s interpretation of a destitute young mother holding her emaciated infant. Her breasts are devoid of milk; resignation and hopelessness are conveyed in every angle and contour of her wasted body. This poignant sculpture was the inspiration for a poem by J. C. Cunningham (1878-1948) who was a professor of horticulture and corn genetics at Iowa State College from 1911 to 1948. He was a scientific author, poet and personal friend of Christian Petersen. Cunningham contributed the Old English literary text which Petersen engraved sculptures into most notably For Melke and Chese and Buttere for the History of Dairying sculpture cycle.
The brave child Hope
Lies starving on the mother’s knees.
Her shrunken breasts have failed
When empty skies
Mocked back the cry for rain.
Both day and night
The cattle moan
For drink and parceled forks of hay.
High poised the ugly buzzards circle slow
To drop like plummets when some beast
Staggering falls to rise no more.
The dried up corn breaks from its roots
And burning winds suck added heat
From pastures dry as parchment from a desert tomb.
The Pueblo calls is clans
And hour by hour
And day by day
Repeats his chants
And thinks by agony and dance
To draw from gods displeased
The blessing of the rain.
The Pale-face knows no chant,
He cannot think that God
Would change his laws for one small place.
He cannot pray for rain;
He can but dumbly stare
While Hope lies dying
On the mother’s knees.
The Petersens witnessed drought across the Midwest in the middle 1930s, when they saw withered crops, scorched pastures, and dustbowls in Kansas. This sculpture and its companion piece Flood reflect the artist’s firsthand experience with the extremes of American weather – which could include an overabundance of rain or a scarcity of it.
Excerpt from Christian Petersen Remembered, 1986, by Patricia Bliss
The moment I saw this sculpture I felt like the spirit underneath my skin had been revealed. The COVID-19 pandemic wears on with prayers for relief like a drought dancing for rain. I can see the drought physically. I can sense the drought emotionally. I can feel the helplessness while waiting it out.
My symptoms have compounded in tandem with daily infection counts. I am watching my former self dry up, seeing the hairline cracks grow deeper. I over-analyze my appearance on Zoom and make mental notes for needed improvements. I obsess over “wellness” activities that are toxic when not accomplished. I chastise myself for my lack of patience in parenting. I am an impostor.
Underneath this costume of flesh is a weathered mom with the same waning spirit we see in this sculpture, and in the eyes of others. We search for the wrinkling of crow’s feet over another mom’s mask hiding a knowing smile as we pass in the grocery store. Like the sculpture, we sit up and keep it together on a small slice of foundation, holding fast with aching arms to those we love.
This drought, though, is temporary for me because I am a white woman with privilege. My resources are vast, and my support is strong so when the skies open and the thirst is quenched, I will bloom again with full cheeks, a soft belly, and warm milk. But our black, brown, queer, trans and immigrant friends are on the other side of the fence, where dance doesn’t produce rain, safety isn’t a reality, and the resources to make change are scarce.
The seeds I grow in the coming fertile earth will need to nourish those who still feel the dry wind and suffering heat. I am learning how to tend this garden side by side with my brothers and sisters as I listen, sit in uncomfortable spaces, and wait for the rain.
Program Coordinator, Arts and the Workspace, Memorial Union
In my work on family poverty and economic inequality, I think about scarcity, disparities, and material hardship; as well as stability, security and mobility. I think about the growing gaps between the “haves” and “have nots” in this country. My interpretation of Drought undoubtedly is influenced by my academic pursuits and by this time of unprecedented change. Our collective understanding of vulnerability to the forces of nature, the injustices of racism, and the meaning of opportunity has been shaken. Art helps us question the status quo and see new perspectives. As Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust off our souls.”
Drought “represents the devastating effects of the extreme floods and droughts that ravaged the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s and the fragility of human life. The mother is malnourished, and without any sustenance she is unable to feed her child. Her vacant expression has given up hope of life and a future.” Drought evokes a sense of utter despair brought on by the forces of nature and inflicted on both generations. This mother is powerless to provide solace to her limp, dying child. Her haunting stare and her ravaged body tell a cautionary tale regarding humankind’s relationship with nature. My mind’s eye leaps forward to the heart-wrenching scenes we now see during the pandemic. Vulnerable elders, isolated in their home or institution, hold up a hand to a windowpane as the next generation does the same from the outside. One generation expects to care for the other, but nature leaves them impotent to touch, hug, feed or comfort. Once again, the forces of nature expose our vulnerabilities.
Drought causes me to think of one of my favorite Christian Petersen sculptures, A Dedication to the Future. The two sculptures stand in sharp contrast, much like the disparities we face today. A Dedication to the Future is a bronze sculpture depicting a strong, sinuous man holding high above his head a healthy, happy toddler with outstretched arms. This larger-than-life sculpture, approved and signed at the base by Christian Petersen four days before his death, sits on a pedestal in abundant water—a beautiful reflecting pool. The adult lifts the child—the next generation—to see beyond what this generation can see. Drought haunts me. A Dedication to the Future offers hope. Perhaps both sculptures offer caveats to each generation to continually reexamine conventional ways of doing things. At no time in my life have lessons on the fragility of life been presented so clearly. Ironically, Drought helps me wash the dust off my soul.
Dr. Cynthia Needles Fletcher
Professor, Human Development and Family Studies
 Iowa State University Museums. Christian Petersen, Drought, 1938. UM85.49.