Dive into the history of three campus sculptures

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‘Transcendence,’ one of many abstract art pieces on campus, honors David Kearney McDonogh, a slave and the first African American graduate of Lafayette. (Photo by Kwasi Obeng-Dankwa ’23)

Lafayette students walk by sculptures every day on their way to class—but how many know the stories behind them?

The most recent addition to Lafayette’s collection of three abstract sculptures arrived on campus in 2008. “Transcendence,” a stainless steel piece by Melvin Edwards, stands 16 feet tall between Skillman Library and Markle Hall.

The statue honors David Kearney McDonogh, an enslaved man and the first African American graduate of Lafayette. A small plaque in front of the piece tells his story.

Michiko Okaya, who recently retired from her position as director of the Lafayette College Art Galleries, highlighted the beauty of the material itself.

“It has a roughed up surface, which makes it sort of glow like that, like it has graffitied surfaces on it,” Okaya said. “It’s beautiful in all seasons, but especially in the winter when the snow is all around it.”

The piece was commissioned by the Experimental Printmaking Institute (EPI) in 2007 when Curlee Holton, the institute’s director at the time, began working with Edwards.

“Holton, who was the director of the EPI, has a very wide network among African American artists, and so he worked with Mel Edwards on a series of prints that incorporate slave chains like the chains in this one,” Okaya said.

Lafayette helped to sell these prints as a way to cover the cost of the sculpture’s commission.

“They’re mostly serigraphs or silkscreens that were done at EPI,” Okaya said. “We actually have a couple of them and we’ve shown them periodically.”

According to Okaya, Edwards’s importance in the art world has only grown since the installation of the piece.

“There have been a lot more exhibitions of Mel’s work recently, and a lot more publications,” Okaya said. “I think his importance in sculpture and in the works of African American artists has really come to the forefront.”

Another abstract sculpture came to Lafayette in 1986 from artist Jay J. Dugan. This sculpture, known as “Bardiglio” or “Orpheus,” sits between Colton Chapel and Pardee Hall just off the quad. 

“Dugan created three sculptures with similar form but different details, and the president accepted this one and installed it here,” Okaya said. 

“There’s another one of his works up at Bucknell University, which seems to be similar in form, and I’m wondering where the third one is,” Okaya said. 

Dugan’s other pieces can be found in universities throughout Philadelphia.

“Dugan’s goal was to help provide sculptures for campuses for the students,” Okaya said.

The top of Dugan’s sculpture is made of Bardiglio marble from Torano, Italy. The base, which itself weighs two and a half tons, is made of Marquina marble from Spain. 

“When it’s cleaned and polished, what happens is the bottom section is a very dark marble, and so the contrast between the two parts becomes really obvious,” said Okaya.

According to Ricardo Reyes, director of the Lafayette College Art Galleries and collections curator, the sculpture is reminiscent of the story of its namesake, Orpheus.

“In Greek mythology, Orpheus plays the lyre. The circular design could represent the hole of the lyre, and the lines could be its strings,” Reyes explained.

The oldest of the three pieces was installed in front of Oechsle Hall in 1985. The piece, entitled “Nine Times,” features nine distinct shapes arranged in a three-by-three grid pattern. The piece was created by Stephen Porter, who still corresponds with Lafayette regarding the piece.

Because of the sculpture’s unique material, it originally started as a dark, metallic color and is now deep red. 

“It’s usually called Cor-ten,” Okaya explained. “The thing about Cor-ten is it’s designed to rust to a certain point, and then stop rusting, so it can get this beautiful kind of rusty, red color to it.”

One concern about the sculpture is its periodic expansion due to weather conditions.

“When it’s really hot, sometimes the top will expand at a different rate than the sides, which can cause a slight dip along the top,” Okaya said.

The piece is heavily influenced by the time period it was created in.

“The period of the 1980s when the sculpture was created was all about abstraction and minimalism, but also a lot of attention to architecture,” Reyes said.

“It almost looks like fragments of architectural shapes,” Reyes said. “There was a lot of work being done on the Parthenon at the time, the Greek temple’s debris and ruins, so there was a lot of work coming out that was similar to that.” 

Both Reyes and Okaya emphasized the importance of appreciating and respecting the art pieces on campus.

“Public art is for the public, but that doesn’t mean the public can do anything it wants to it,” Reyes said. 

In the future, Reyes and Okaya hope to make information about Lafayette’s art pieces more available to the public, possibly through the placement of QR codes near the pieces or by making details accessible through Google Maps.