Up for interpretation: Artful campus sculptures have little-known histories

"The Fork" statue created by James Wentz on Kansas State Campus in Manhattan, Kan. on Nov. 28, 2017. (Photo by Hailey McClellan | Collegian Media Group)

Everyone has a different theory about what the sculptures on campus represent. Art is usually left up to interpretation, especially when the artist’s intent, and the piece’s origins remain a mystery.

“When I was a freshman walking through campus, there was a statue by the Union that I thought looked like piece of rye bread,” Lydia Mounts, senior in elementary education, said. “It always made me feel better because I knew I was almost done with my day when I saw my rye bread.”

Mounts said her freshman year was a really difficult year for her, so having things like the “rye bread” statue made her feel better about being on campus.

The sculptures on campus serve as landmarks to many students at K-State. There are at least 15 sculptures all around the campus guiding freshmen and seniors alike to the right buildings.

“The sculptures around campus help me tell where I am,” Reagan Grimm, senior in education, said. “For instance, the giant fork statue lets me know I’m by King Hall because it’s like a trident that Neptune would have.”

There are several different speculations about many of the sculptures on campus, but the “fork” is at the top of that list. Created in 1969 by James Wentz, it is the tallest statue on campus. It is made of wood, fiberglass and plastic, but little else is known about it.

Just like the “fork,” many of the statues on campus received their funding from a workshop called art-in-situation throughout the years. Others were donated or purchased.

“Other sculptures on campus were either purchased or donated from professional artists, including the brother statues ‘Kreqe-aekyed’ and ‘Kqrefe-aekyad,’ the statue ‘Spiral Jade’ and the bust of William Alexander Harris,” said Linda Duke, director of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art and chair holder of the KSU Committee for Public Art.

Duke said there has not always been a formal way of putting up sculptures or papers saying how long they would be there and who would take responsibility for them.

“Unfortunately, I think there are pieces that aren’t representative of the artist’s intention anymore,” Duke said, “since they have been left without upkeep or anyone being responsible for them.”

Diana McElwain, administrative assistant for K-State Human Capital Services and graduate student in public administration, said she took on the task of documenting all the pieces on campus in 2015, including memorials, statues, sculptures, etc. She took a photo of each piece and put its title and who made it. This is the most formal documentation of any of the pieces on campus.

The choice of what stays and what goes or changes is a difficult decision for the Committee for Public Art.

“Finding student representation is a big part of moving forward,” Duke said.

The committee had student representation last year, but since the student left campus, the committee has not filled the position.

“There are so many students who could design a website,” Sarah Blair, junior in fine arts, said. “It would be nice to be able to go online and click on a link that would show you all of the different art pieces you could go see on campus.”

Blair said a competition for students to present ideas on how to best display on the different pieces on campus would be good course of action.

Duke said it is a difficult job that will need many different voices to come together to get this done and find a solution.