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Rising, Renewing, Reaching: Harry Bertoia and the Marshall University Memorial Fountain Presented by the Polan Family in Memory of Dorothy and Lake Polan Jr.

September 19 - January 3, 2021

To observe the 50th Anniversary this fall of the Marshall University plane crash, the Huntington Museum of Art will present an exhibition of work by Harry Bertoia, the artist who created the Marshall University Memorial Fountain.

Titled Rising, Renewing, Reaching: Harry Bertoia and the Marshall University Memorial Fountain, this exhibition is Presented by the Polan Family in Memory of Dorothy and Lake Polan, Jr. This exhibition will be on view in HMA’s Switzer Gallery from Sept. 19 through Jan. 3, 2021. An exhibit of Marshall University Fountain photographs by David Pittenger will be on view in HMA’s Virginia Van Zandt Great Hall during the run of the Bertoia exhibition.

Celia Bertoia, the daughter of the artist, is tentatively scheduled to present The Dr. Lawrence B. and Shirley Gang Memorial Lecture at HMA on Nov. 13, 2020, from 5 to 7 p.m. (Please follow HMA social media platforms for updates on this event, which may be presented virtually.)

Harry Bertoia’s Memorial Fountain on the Marshall University campus has become a powerful symbol of the university itself, serving as a centerpiece for the school grounds and a vigilant reminder of the terrible airline tragedy that occurred on November 14, 1970, when 75 players, coaches and supporters of the football team perished.

Twice yearly, a solemn ceremony is held at the Fountain, attended by large crowds who mark the moment, often tearfully, as the water is turned off in the fall and the flow is restored in the spring. A small plaque accompanies the sculpture with a simple statement that acknowledges the artwork’s purpose: “They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever and this memorial records their loss to the university and the community.”

The choice of Bertoia as the designer of an on-campus memorial to mark the Marshall tragedy is an interesting case study in the often-contentious process of determining what constitutes a proper symbol for public memory. Soon after the tragic event occurred, acting Marshall University President Donald Dedmon appointed a committee to decide on a memorial for the victims of the crash. Several ideas were discussed, including proposals to feature a buffalo or football players as part of the memorial’s motif. Architect Keith Dean, who had designed the Marshall Student Center on campus, suggested Harry Bertoia as a candidate to create the memorial sculpture. Bertoia had been recommended to Dean by Roberta Emerson, Director of the Huntington Museum of Art, who knew of his work through the artist’s sculpture in the museum’s holdings. Dean hoped that Bertoia’s work could be placed in a spot in front of the Center that had already been designed to house a fountain (construction on the Student Center had begun in 1969, well before the air tragedy occurred).

Much like discussions that occurred around Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., an emotional debate occurred about the MU commission, centered upon whether an abstract work of art could properly commemorate the tragic loss of life. High-ranking Marshall University Athletic Department officials maligned Bertoia’s design, condemning the choice of a “surrealist” artist and questioning whether the work was a tribute to “flower children” or football players. Nevertheless, the committee, headed by Huntington businessman Lake Polan, Jr., voted 5-4 to commission Bertoia to create the memorial. Once the fountain arrived from Bertoia’s Pennsylvania studio and was dedicated on November 12, 1972, public sentiment swung in favor of the work and it has since become a beloved symbol of the University.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Marshall air tragedy, HMA will feature an exhibit that displays the broad range of the multi-talented Bertoia’s work, including his iconic furniture designs as well as prints, sculpture and jewelry, with a focus upon his work on the MU Fountain.

Presented by the Polan Family in Memory of Dorothy and Lake Polan, Jr.

Presented with support from The Isabelle Gwynn and Robert Daine Exhibition Endowment.

This program is presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.

This program is made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the federal CARES Act through the West Virginia Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rising, Renewing, Reaching: Harry Bertoia and the Marshall University Memorial Fountain

In this 1972 photograph, Harry Bertoia, center, chats with Huntington Museum of Art trustees Virginia Brown and Harry Wolfe, Jr. about his design for the Marshall University Memorial Fountain. Photo courtesy of The Herald-Dispatch.