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PERSPECTIVE: The Timeless Realism of Christian Petersen

Posted on July 31, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Quinn Vandenberg

There is a cadence to a typical day of classes at Iowa State University. From 8 a.m. until about 4 p.m., ten minutes prior to every hour, students pour out of buildings and onto the campus streets, sidewalks and green spaces. They trek across the quads between dorms and buildings, but also pass magnificent examples of public art, particularly the sculptures of Christian Petersen. At those ten-minute (now amended to fifteen-minute), intervals each student has a single shared opportunity, each has a chance to engage with a beautiful and artful campus.

“This is not an accident,” is a mantra frequently given by University Museums’ director Lynette Pohlman. For those familiar with the Art on Campus Collection, the “this” Lynette refers to cannot be ignored. It is a feeling of bliss when standing in the midst of Iowa State University’s campus. The architecture and sculptures signal to those on campus that they are at a prominent and artfully inspired institution. On one of my first days of class a student near me asked another why they chose to come to Iowa State. “The campus is beautiful,” he replied. He gets it.

Iowa State President Raymond Hughes understood the need for a beautiful campus to facilitate a well-rounded educational environment for students in the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, art seemed like an unnecessary luxury, but President Hughes understood the importance of an aesthetically pleasing campus to draw and enrich students when he hired the nation’s first artist-in-residence at a college or university, Christian Petersen.

Petersen’s art spans across much of the campus, from Morrill Hall on central campus to the College of Veterinary Medicine situated south east of the main campus. Petersen’s works of art seem to act as a signifier for the utility of the areas in which they reside. The Three Athletes are fittingly located on the walls of the State Gym (formerly the men’s gymnasium). The History of Dairying is in a courtyard within the Food Sciences Building (formerly the Dairy Science Building). Library Boy and Girl are placed in Parks Library. Each of these locations serves a unique and specialized purpose, but they are united in two regards. They all broadly serve Iowa State University, and they all contain sculptures by Christian Petersen.

The art Petersen created for campus is heavily rooted in realism. While The Gentle Doctor has hands that are rather large and Conversations features students on a monumental scale, these sculptures act out scenes that are relatable to those who inhabit the campus. They reflect the everyday lives of students and faculty from across the colleges at Iowa State. This allows the artwork to be accessible and perfectly suited for a college campus. The sculpture’s actions are so universal, people from all over the world can easily understand what they see, and often relate to what is depicted. I believe there is a common feeling amongst the public that art serves to remind, or even educate us of our past. There is some truth to that; when I look at Petersen’s depictions of Abraham Lincoln, I am reminded of the Morrill Act (Land-grant Act of 1862) and the then President’s impactful actions for accessible education for all Americans.

However, Petersen’s scenes of life throughout campus have a different purpose in my view.

For example, Library Boy and Girl. There is studying, a nervous look, flirtation, awkwardness, genuine human connection all within one pair of sculptures. I look at this sculpture pair and feel part of a time-honored community. Classes change, technology changes, people change, but the innate aspects of campus life sculpted within Library Boy and Girl are as prevalent now as they were 80 years ago. I look at this sculpture, and I am reminded of where I am and what I am doing at Iowa State. I am getting an education, and I am interacting with the people around me as I do so. What is the point of a sculpture if not to educate us on our history? I think it is to remind us of our present.

There is a lot happening on any given day at Iowa State University. So much that it is easy to become disconnected from each other and lost within our own studies and personal ambitions. When sculptures such as Conversations are engaged with, they force students to take a step back from their life and focus on their college experience. Why am I here? To get a degree, obviously. Conversations explores a deeper meaning behind the college experience. Who am I? I look at the sculpted students and feel some of the most important aspects of college life are often the most overlooked. I am reminded that an important part of college is becoming active with my fellow students and engaging with the unique community a university setting fosters.

Next time you look at The Gentle Doctor, Three Athletes, Conversations, or Library Boy and Girl, I challenge you to see yourself in the sculptures. The genius of Petersen’s depictions is that they are not beholden to one individual, they are reminiscent of us all. That universality is rare and precious. It allows the art to work as a connecting force and remind us of our commonality and community. In my world, that is what makes Christian Petersen’s art beautiful and timeless.

TOP IMAGE: Intern Quinn Vandenberg stands in between Library Boy and Girl by Christian Petersen.

LEFT: The Gentle Doctor, 1937-1938 by Christian Petersen. Located in Hixson-Lied Small Animal Hospital. In the Art on Campus Collection, Christian Petersen Art Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U84.179

ABOVE RIGHT: Three Athletes, 1935-1936 by Christian Petersen. Located on the north exterior wall of State Gymnasium. Commissioned by Iowa State College. In the Art on Campus Collection, Christian Petersen Art Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U88.75abc

BOTTOM RIGHT: Detail of Conversations, 1947-1955 by Christian Petersen. Located in the south entrance courtyard of Oak Hall. Commissioned by Iowa State College. In the Art on Campus Collection, Christian Petersen Art Collection,  University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U88.63

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