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JaneAnn Stout Interpretation

FOCUS: Critical Conversations with Art

Published onSep 23, 2020
JaneAnn Stout Interpretation

It was a cool spring morning, April 19, 1999. The skies were grey and rain threatened when the truck drove onto central campus around 7:30 to install Border Crossing. When the sculpture emerged from the truck and was lifted into place, the family totem appeared to be walking toward the open embrace of LeBaron and Palmer. The location of this strong, contemporary totem was an immediate compliment to the Christian Petersen, Marriage Ring Fountain, commissioned in 1942. Lynette and I decided Border Crossing was here to stay. In awe, we gazed as the sun broke through and highlighted the rawness of the emotions of the figures, the bright colors, and the incredible detail. We knew the piece would push emotions and bring about thoughtful dialogue. Our only question was how to fund this dynamic piece for the permanent Art on Campus collection. Enthusiastically, we asked the first person who passed by for a donation. Dennis Peterson, Director of Iowa State University's Office of International Students, admired the piece, took out his check book and graciously made the first contribution before continuing on to his office. With our first donation in hand, and given the power and the presence of the piece, the contributions continued to arrive.

Originally on loan from the artist, the 11-foot, 1,100 pound, fiberglass sculpture, depicting a Mexican immigrant carrying his wife and baby on his shoulders, was installed in a “river of grass” and at ground level, just south of LeBaron Hall. The installation, was proposed as a temporary exhibit through August of 1999, along with three additional exhibits at the Brunnier. Celebration of Resiliency, addressed people's abilities individually, as families and as communities, to weather challenges and build on their strengths. This grouping of exhibits and accompanying lectures and workshops, would pave the way for the 2000, “ISU Year of the Family” celebrations.

On April 21, 1999, Border Crossing artist, Luis Jiménez, joined us on campus to discuss his work with students and the public. He indicated strong support for the location and placement of the piece. He felt the ground placement was preferable to mounting the sculpture on a pedestal, as it was more accessible to the viewer and emphasized more realistically the difficult situation of the immigrants. He also noted the placement was a strong statement of our campus trust and acceptance for the safety of the sculpture and its message.

Reflecting on his own Mexican heritage, Jiménez shared that the piece paid homage to laborers who face exploitation, exportation, and even death by illegally crossing the Rio Grande (or, from the Mexican side, the Rio Bravo) into the United States. "I had wanted to make a piece that was dealing with the issue of the illegal alien," Jiménez explained. "People talked about aliens as if they landed from outer space, as if they weren't really people. I wanted to put a face on them; I wanted to humanize them. I also wanted to deal with the whole idea of family. . . I went back to my experience in El Paso where this is a common sight, of men carrying women on their backs through the water." Jiménez shared that the piece “was also personal, dedicated to my father’s and grandmother’s illegal crossing of the border into El Paso in 1924.”

The work is ambitious in scale, and exciting in its use of materials and color, with a mix of popular culture and high art. Pride, compassion, resiliency and warmth emanate from the representation of the family. Jiménez’s theme, although personal in reflection, is also universal. It connects each of us with our own history, myths, dreams and flaws.

As I visit the piece, I reflect on the time surrounding its arrival, and what for many in our state and nation, was a time of ambiguity and political tension. In 1999, Iowa communities were noting rapid changes brought about by Latino immigrants. Businesses, schools, and communities experienced challenges and opportunities. Legal and illegal immigration topics became part of the weekly media. ISU Extension partnered with citizens in responding to these changing needs. Extension to Families programming refocused on diversity issues related to children, youth and families at risk. We increased diversity hires. We encouraged staff to learn Spanish. We created opportunities for staff and community leaders to travel to Mexico to increase appreciation and understanding of the history, and improve our ability to assist with educational needs of families.  

I reflect on the chilling news and deaths of those desperate to enter illegally, found locked in train cars and vehicles... and I try to balance that in remembrance of joyous parties of those who have become citizens, and who have graduated from ISU. I look at the bare feet of the man and the woman, clearly hard working and close to the land... and I remember my grandparents, their entry to the states from Germany and Denmark, their hard work and their love of the land. I gaze on the silent scream of the baby, and feel fear, anger, and determination fortified and secured by parental strength... and I remember the candles and makeshift memorials left late at night at the feet of the sculpture on Day of the Dead.

Early on, the sculpture became a destination for dance, music, planned and spontaneous gatherings supporting and embracing families, students and campus visitors. It has become a place to reflect on cultural diversity and resiliency of the human spirit. Many have shared “ownership” of Border Crossing since its arrival, weaving a thick fabric of connected stories and memories to the piece. Bob Jolly has given permission, to share a few threads of that fabric, in this poem by his dear wife, Colleen Jolly (1946-2018). Colleen was a friend and colleague, a talented writer and a gifted educator. Colleen served as ISU Extension State Family Development Specialist, 1993-2007.

-JaneAnn Stout, Associate Dean Emerita, College of Human Sciences and Retired Director of ISU Extension to Families, 1990-2008. Retired College of Design faculty, 1974-2008, Iowa State University

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