A new sculpture, created and conceived by a Michigan State University faculty member and student, is now permanently displayed outside the headquarters for the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) located at 3899 Coolidge Road in East Lansing.
The sculpture, titled “Us,” was created by Alex Vonhof, a talented artist who graduated from MSU with a BFA in Studio Art in Spring 2023, and Jacquelynn Sullivan Gould, Teaching Specialist and Director of Galleries for MSU’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design.
MSUFCU chose to collaborate with Vonhof and Sullivan Gould, who also is a mixed media sculptor and installation artist with an MFA from MSU, among all those who responded to their request for qualifications (RFQ), which sought individuals with prior experience in creating public art, preferably MSU students, faculty, staff, or alumni.
When Sullivan Gould saw the RFQ, she reached out to Vonhof, a student of hers, to gauge his interest in co-creating a collaborative sculpture and to give him an invaluable opportunity to delve into the process of creating public art before graduating from MSU.
“I knew Alex hadn’t had a chance to make any public art, so that would eliminate him from being able to participate,” Sullivan Gould said. “But together, with me being an alum and a faculty member, and also having a student, we literally fulfilled all they were hoping for.”
A Collaborative Project
To kick off the project, Sullivan Gould and Vonhof visited the future site of the sculpture where they found a quaint bench, nestled amidst a charming landscape of trees, flowers, and water. As they sat at this picturesque spot, they revisited the proposal requirements, questioning what they would want to see if they were situated in one of the nearby buildings.
Working separately at first, they each sketched preliminary ideas before reconvening to compare their concepts. From these individual drawings, Sullivan Gould brought their shared vision to life by creating a maquette, a smaller-scale model specifically designed for sculptural projects. After completing the maquette, she handed it off to Vonhof, who made some adjustments before returning it to Sullivan Gould for final refinements.
“The big thing we were thinking about was how to represent support and connection in a way that’s broad enough that could appeal to anyone, but also specific enough so that it’s not just pure abstraction,” Sullivan Gould said. “We came up with the idea of three large bands of metal that are rolled and bent at different angles. As you look at it from different perspectives, you see a different one of those pieces as the supportive role with another being supported. It also was created to give you a reason to look through it, to see the natural environment behind it, so as to not create a wall, but instead a literal window.”
The sculpture is made of Corten steel, a material that is meant to age and slowly change into a dark amber color. Instead of the degrading process typical for most steel, Corten steel slowly forms a patina, which is a natural process of surface oxidation. The decision to incorporate this material was motivated by the desire to complement the lush greenery surrounding the sculpture, creating a harmonious interplay between the artwork and its environment.
“We thought that as the seasons change in that location, and as the leaves turn brown and it becomes fall, the sculpture will absorb into the landscape,” Sullivan Gould said. “And in winter, when everything is coated in snow, it will pop out and appear. And so, not only do you experience different ways of understanding the form as you walk around it, but as the seasons change, it will also change with them.”
An Invaluable Educational Experience
For Vonhof, the project was an invaluable educational experience, allowing him to apply the knowledge acquired from the Outdoor Sculpture and Public Art class taught by Sullivan Gould that he took online during the pandemic. Now, a few years later, he had the opportunity to put theory into practice.
The MSUFCU project involved formal presentations to the East Lansing Art Commission and the MSUFCU review committee. Sullivan Gould and Vonhof had to meticulously organize their plans and secure funding approval while also securing a fabricator to realize their vision.
“You can’t be an artist and an educator without wanting to give your students an opportunity to grow, and to learn from whatever experiences you can offer them,” Sullivan Gould said. “Through all those initial planning steps, it gave Alex not only an opportunity to see this in action but to also literally be in charge of this himself. And it gave him the power of understanding and experiencing it firsthand. Not only did Alex get the chance to learn about the actual building, the proposing, the funding, the permits that were required to literally transport the piece on the highway, and all of the steps in between, but also the parts of the piece that you can’t see.”
“It was important that everything in this project became about collaboration and transparency. I hope that when someone encounters it, that they take away from it the fact that nothing really exists in the singular, everything is always going to have a plurality to it.”Jacquelynn Sullivan Gould, Teaching Specialist and Director of Galleries
One major challenge of the project was finding a fabricator to work with. Corten steel is extremely dense and exceeded the scale of the tools available on campus. Sullivan Gould and Vonhof contacted every metal fabricator in the state of Michigan, as well as metal fabricators in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but struggled to find an available contractor. Most businesses were still playing catch-up from COVID and were unable to take on new work. However, Vonhof’s diligent research led him to the Kalamazoo business 43Forty Fabrication Services, which was intrigued by the artistic challenge of the piece.
“Alex is originally from Kalamazoo and had done some additional research there and came across this business. He was able to go in person and just connect with them directly. I think that’s why they were excited about working with us,” Sullivan Gould said. “They’re a newer business in terms of the fabrication aspect of their business. They were excited about the challenge that our piece would present to their business.”
The final stages of the project involved meetings with MSUFCU, Granger Construction Company, and the fabricators to discuss the installation process. Finally, after months of envisioning the sculpture, their shared creation materialized and was officially unveiled on April 19, 2023.
The completed sculpture now proudly stands outside the MSUFCU headquarters, inviting viewers to contemplate the essence of collaboration and support.
“It was important that everything in this project became about collaboration and transparency,” Sullivan Gould said. “I hope that when someone encounters it, that they take away from it the fact that nothing really exists in the singular, everything is always going to have a plurality to it.”