IOWA CITY — Iowa River fish swam inside the former Hancher Auditorium’s orchestra pit, during the 2008 flood.
Thirty granite fish are now swimming outside the new Hancher Auditorium, in the “Wellspring” art installation unveiled Friday morning to a drumroll provided by University of Iowa Marching Band percussionist Jenna Springer.
Artist Colette Hosmer joined the ceremony via video from her Santa Fe, N.M., home.
The North Dakota native traveled to Iowa for the first time in early October 2019, to get a feel for Hancher and its surroundings. Her “aha” moment came as she was leaving a sold-out Broadway touring performance of “Rent” on Oct. 5.
“My first feeling of this project happened that night, when I was leaving the auditorium, in this flow of a packed-house audience. That’s when ‘Wellspring’ occurred to me,” she told the nearly 30 people gathered for the outdoor ceremony on a perfect early autumn day.
“Hancher was the origin and the beginning of an endless source of creativity for the community and the world beyond, actually. And I visualized an overspill of this energy — this wellspring, this creative energy and enthusiasm.
“I envisioned an overspill and saw a school of fish going out from that source into the community beyond,” she said. “The fish symbolize ... waves flowing out from the source.”
Each identical fish sculpture, weighing 530 pounds apiece, was carved and polished by hand at a small stone yard in China where Hosmer previously had sourced material.
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She had sculpted a clay model in her studio, followed by a plaster mold and the original plaster half-size piece, then shipped it to China, where she joined two master carvers to enlarge and refine the model. They worked together on the final pieces.
She needed to leave early, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued working with the carvers via online visual platforms.
“I was there long enough to get the project close to completion,” she said.
“This is a dream come true,” added Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “A year ago, this was a dream, and it’s happened.”
The project was financed through a “major” gift from David and Noreen Revier of Iowa City. They didn’t wish to be interviewed, but Swanson described it as “a gift from the heart,” adding that the ceremony was held on the plaza named in their honor, outside Hancher’s front door.
Surveying the 24 statues forming lines within the landscaping leading away from those front doors, along with the six fish planted along the side of the building, Swanson earlier said that when he’s in the lobby, he feels like he’s “in an aquarium, switching places with the fish.”
David Brown, manager of UI landscape services, and his crew worked with Hosmer to carefully plot the installation not only for aesthetics but to make sure the 40-inch anchors wouldn’t sever any underground electrical and IT lines.
The workers began the installation Sept. 18 and finished Monday morning. The fish were then wrapped in black plastic for Friday’s big reveal, which drew applause from the socially distanced, masked gathering.
The project has inspired a wellspring of related activities, from a children’s book, “Fishtastic: A Tale of Magic and Friendship,” to be available in April; a student writing project where local schools will adopt and name a fish that students will write stories about; and a formal Chinese welcome ceremony in April, with a song and dance for 60 to 90 children, choreographed by the Step Afrika! troupe that’s partnering with Hancher this year for a series of virtual and live performances.
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“The most important part is the engagement for young people, for really people of all ages,” Swanson said.
He and his wife met Hosmer in Santa Fe and said every time they go there, they feel the magic of her work.
“In the world we live in today, we all need this joy, we all need this happiness, we all need these connections,” he said. “And Hancher is a source for all that.”
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