#10 A Year or More Later

1970, 4 Bodies, Napalm
1970
During my first year teaching I spent most of my time building equipment for the glass studio and kilns for the ceramic studio. It was a busy year to say the least. In February of 1970 the artist Robert Smithson came to our campus and created a site specific work titled Partially Buried Woodshed. The work he created proved to be very controversial on our campus for many years. The university administration wanting to see it gone and the students fought to keep it. The month of April 1970 saw the war in Vietnam expand and as a result the U.S. began to see the anti-war demonstrations become more heated on America’s college campuses. There was a generational divide that would culminate with the Ohio National Guard killing 4 students and wounding 9 others on the campus of Kent State, the university that I was teaching at. That event was a trauma that will be with me for the rest of my days. After the shootings we, the faculty, were no longer permitted on the campus or into any of our school studios. I was now teaching classes at my home. My students and I gathered at my little house in the woods and we usually sat and discussed the war, the demonstrations, and anything else that came to mind. My classes were more like group therapy than anything else.

The trauma that was the academic year came to and end and a summers very uneasy peace descended on the university as well as our town. Every so often cars would drive through the city with scrawled signs declaring that “They should have shot more students” or “Kill the commie students”. To my way of thinking our country was in the midst of a new civil war. Needless to say my heart was heavy with what had transpired on my campus but life goes on and I now found myself wrestling with creative ideas of how I would or could express my grief through art.

It was now the Fall of 1970 and a new school year was beginning. The university was still feeling the aftermath of what had transpired on its campus. I was back at work in the glass and ceramic studios along with my students. The glass studio continued to expand as my class sizes expanded.

Four Bodies
While working on building equipment and teaching my classes I still had plans to create memorials for the 4 students that had been shot and killed. A few years before, while I was still a potter, I had created a painted ceramic memorial plaque in protest of the war and now considered reviving that idea to create another plaque only this time I would create the work and cast it in fiberglass. I should mention that next door to the glass studio was a fiberglass company and I had free access to all the fiberglass materials that I needed. I created 2 plaques and then decided to actually make full body plaster life molds from four of my students and then transfer that casting into fiberglass as well. The plaster mold would be created from plaster/gauze bandage. It took me the better part of the year to finish fabricating those body sculptures. A few months after completing my body sculpture the Akron Art Museum offered me an exhibition of my glass works. I agreed and asked if I could also exhibit the other works that I had created. The museum agreed and offered me a small room for my May 4th pieces.

I now had to figure out how to exhibit this work. I decided that I would try and reproduce the bodies in a realistic environment. I purchased a number of rolls of artificial grass and would place the bodies on the turf within the confines of this small room. My next problem was how to light the room. I decided to contact John Filo. Filo was the student that had taken those iconic photos of the shooting (see footnote). My idea was to video his photos and light the room with a television set that would display his photos on a continuous loop along with a soundtrack of gunfire. Filo agreed and we got together at the museum and I made the video along with the soundtrack.

I thought it would be interesting if I could somehow get the viewer to be part of the installation instead of passively viewing the work from afar. To accomplish this I created an open path into the installation that led the viewer toward the small TV set I had set up on the other side of the room. Once the viewers eyes adjusted to the dim room and the sound of gunfire they became aware that there were bone colored bodies on each side of where they were standing. The impact of the installation was more than I expected. I was told by the museum guard that on more than one occasion a viewer would shed tears after viewing the installation.

Dow Chemical
A few months after my Akron Art Museum exhibition I received an invitation to exhibit some of my glass work at a large craft exhibition organized by the potter John Glick that was to be held at the Dow Center in Midlands, Michigan. It should be noted that the Dow Chemical Companies home office was located in Midlands and they were the manufacturer of Napalm which was being used extensively in Vietnam. At this point in time the country saw many demonstrations protesting Dow and Napalm.

It was arranged that my glass works would be picked up at my house and delivered to the exhibition space. On the day my work was to be picked up a pick-up truck arrived driven by John Stephenson, a friend that I knew from my days as a potter. John was assisting Glick in organizing the exhibition. After a warm greeting we went to pick up the the boxes of my glass work for the exhibition which were on the second floor of my studio.

I had forgotten that the 4 bodies were also stored upstairs along with the boxes of my glass. Spotting the bodies John asked what they were and I told him how they related to the Kent State shooting. He was very intrigued by my story as well as the work and then asked if he could use my phone. His phone conversation was with John Glick. Glick decided that he would rather exhibit my bodies instead of my glass. I, of course, readily agreed and Stephenson and I loaded the bodies into the back of his pick-up truck. To be honest I wondered how my Kent State sculpture related to a crafts exhibition but was more than happy to exhibit that sculpture instead of my small glass pieces.

The time arrived for the opening of the show in Midlands and Sandy and I decided we would attend the opening. We drove to Midlands that day and checked into one of the local motels and prepared for the opening. It was to be a gala affair with many of the Dow executives in attendance. Upon arriving we were met by John Glick. He took us aside and related the following story to us.

On the day prior to the opening some of the Dow executives asked for a tour of the show. The show was on the second level of the Dow center and as I recall was quite extensive. It seems that my 4 bodies were laid out to the right of the entrance to the exhibition at the top of the stairs. It was the first piece you would see upon entering the exhibition. The Dow executives asked John to explain what the bodies were about. He told them that they were a representation of the 4 Kent State students that had been slain by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest on the campus of Kent State University. At that point the Dow executives asked that the bodies be removed before the shows opening. John stood his ground and told the executives that if the bodies were removed he and his assistants would remove the entire exhibition. It was all or nothing. It was obvious that Dow Chemical did not want any work exhibited that might reflect negatively on their company especially in their corporate headquarters home city. After much discussion the Dow executives backed down and the show opened as originally planned. I was quite thankful that John was able to stand up to those executives. I often wondered what those executives thought of Napalm a product their company manufactured and was responsible for the fiery death of so many innocent people.

Notes
Many years have passed since those events took place and writing this has brought back some of the raw emotion of that time and place. At the time I, like many others, was loud and full of grit and with all my being, through my art and demonstrating, stood up to authority as best I could and have no regrets. I’m now 85 and will do it again if need be.

The exact time sequence of when I created some of the work is a bit shady after all these years but it all falls within the very early 70’s.

I have one more story that relates to my Kent State series and it is about how I re-invented glass casting. That story will be told in my next blog.

The 4 bodies along with a few of my other Kent State sculptures now reside in the Special Collections of Kent State University.

(Footnote) John Paul Filo is an American photographer whose picture of 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio screaming while kneeling over the dead body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, one of the victims of the Kent State shootings, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Wikipedia

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This is the Partially Buried Woodshed soon after it was created by Robert Smithson and how after many years. Note the May 4th graffiti on the beam.

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This is a recent photo of the 4 bodies created in 1971. I took them out of storage for a photo shoot. A photo by John Filo of me with three other May 4th pieces (1971). May 4th Plaque. John Filo's May 4th photo of Mary Ann Vecchio at the body of Jeffrey Miller.

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Napalm