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Long-standing sculpture in Iowa City will get new life at Riverfront Crossings

Snelson sculpture has been relocated many times

Kenneth Snelson’s “Four Module Piece” (1968) is at Terrill Mill Park in Iowa City on Saturday, May 25, 2019. The sculpture will be relocated to Iowa City’s new Riverfront Crossings Park. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Kenneth Snelson’s “Four Module Piece” (1968) is at Terrill Mill Park in Iowa City on Saturday, May 25, 2019. The sculpture will be relocated to Iowa City’s new Riverfront Crossings Park. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Some 40 years ago, Dick Summerwill was in his office at the Iowa State Bank in Iowa City when Nancy Seiberling stopped by.

The husband of Frank Seiberling Jr., who led the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, Nancy was heavily involved with improving Iowa City through art and green spaces, Summerwill said.

“I always knew it was work when she came in,” Summerwill recalls with a smile. “The ideas were always good, though. She said, ‘We need to have sculptures in Iowa City and I would like you to head up the program to get sculptures in Iowa City.’

“Nobody ever said no to Nancy, including me,” Summerwill said. “So I said, “OK, I’ll do it. But you’re going to have to help.”

A sculpture from renown sculptor Kenneth Snelson was ultimately obtained and placed in downtown Iowa City. But for the past 22 years, the sculpture has sat in Terrell Mill Park along the Iowa River and in a form Dick and his wife, Joyce Summerwill, said doesn’t fit Snelson’s vision for the piece. Later this year, however, the sculpture, Four Module Piece, will be refurbished, reconfigured and relocated to Riverfront Crossings Park. City officials said the sculpture will serve as a landmark for the new park.

For the Summerwills, it means seeing a project that started more than 40 years ago finally be finished.

“It’s exciting,” Dick Summerwill said. “It’s exciting to get this project put to bed after all these years.”

“No,” Joyce Summerwill corrected. “Brought to life.”

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In the early 1970s, a group including Dick Summerwill, Frank Seiberling, former UI Museum of Art Director Ulfert Wilke and others, had a competition to determine which sculptures would be acquired. Summerwill said “a flood of people” submitted their work, and soon mini versions of sculptures took over the Iowa State Bank boardroom.

“We lost control of that place for a while,” he said.

With a budget of $88,000 thanks to fundraising and a grant from the National Endowment of Arts, the group acquired Snelson’s sculpture as well as a piece by Richard Field, Triaxial Hemicylindrical, said Marcia Bollinger, neighborhood outreach coordinator. Triaxial Hemicylindrical is now in City Park, Bollinger said.

Joyce Summerwill, who oversaw Project Art at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and has been involved Art on Campus and the UI Art Museum, described Snelson — who died in 2016 — as “one of the major sculptors of his era.”

“He was at the highlight of his time when this came to be,” she said. “He was what one would call the ‘hot artist.’”

Snelson’s sculptures — including Four Module Piece — involved taking solid metal tubes and suspending them with wires to create a sense that the tubes are floating. His work has been featured across the United States, as well as Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

According to documents provided by the city, a dedication for the Snelson and Field sculptures was held on Oct. 11, 1975. The ceremony featured a keynote address from then-Gov. Robert Ray and short speeches from Dick Summerwill, Field, Snelson and other elected officials. A sculpture walk and sale took place on Washington Street, featuring 60 sculptures from University of Iowa students. Even construction workers working on Washington Street got in on the activities, creating a sculpture of their own out of barrels, Dick Summerwill said.

“It was a big deal,” he recalls. “It really was a big deal down there. The crowd was big. People understood what we had done in terms of adding sculpture to Iowa City.”

The Snelson sculpture was initially placed on the University of Iowa campus when it arrived in Iowa City.

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“The Snelson piece will be temporarily located on the lawn of the University of Iowa Physics Building until the city’s urban renewal project progresses sufficiently to permit relocating it on a permanent site in the urban renewal area,” according to a city news release at the time.

In the case of the Snelson sculpture, temporary meant roughly 22 years. The sculpture remained near Van Allen Hall until 1997 when it was moved to make room for Biology Building East.

“What we were thinking is it would probably be best in one of the urban renewal places that would be big enough for it and it could be very prominent,” Dick Summerwill said. “That didn’t work. Then we got thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this?’”

Four Module Piece was ultimately moved to Terrell Mill Park, located on the Iowa River at North Dubuque and Taft Speedway streets. The sculpture was also reconfigured when it was moved.

“It was supposed to be an entry point to Iowa City and that would be remarkable,” Joyce said. “But, it was set like four bent soldiers and there was none of that poetry of things floating or suspended in space.”

The sculpture has remained at Terrell Mill Park in that configuration ever since. However, a couple of years ago, the Summerwills were approached by another couple interested in having the Snelson piece relocated. The group went to meet with the city’s art committee to discuss having it moved.

Bollinger said discussions about relocating the sculpture turned to Riverfront Crossings Park, which has been developed over the last several years. Not only does the park have the space for the statue, but Bollinger said developers in Riverfront Crossings seeking a density bonus contributed to public arts funding.

“Otherwise, I don’t know if we would have been able to do it,” Bollinger said.

Iowa City Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson said the sculpture will be refurbished and placed at the entrance of the park in a configuration closer to what Snelson intended. Seydell Johnson said the sculpture will “become a real focal point for the entrance of that park.”

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“I think it’s really exciting it’s going to find a new home that makes it a landmark for us,” she said.

The Summerwills can’t hide their excitement about seeing the sculpture returned to a place of prominence, either.

“This is a major work of art and one that is timeless in its nature,” Joyce Summerwill said. “It will forever be on public ground. When you drive by, you will see it. And even from Highway 6, you will see it. ... It’s going to be seen by thousands of people. I’m so excited about it.”

The total cost of the refurbishment and relocation is not yet known. Seydell Johnson said she isn’t sure when the project will be complete, but the hope is to have it moved by this fall.

Like the Summerwills, Seydell Johnson said she can’t wait to see this project completed.

“It’s going to add something special,” she said. “It’s a finish line for the sculpture, but it’s kind of a starting point for our new park. I find it really exciting.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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