Sculpture Walk: Solar Totem #1

Solar Totem #1 was designed by Don Drumm in 1967, and constructed by art educators from across the country. It was created for the sake of the National Defense Education Act, which was a piece of legislation put into place in light of the Soviet Satellite, “Sputnik,” launching into space. The United States feared for the quality of its educational programs and so implemented this act to hopefully increase the number of strong academic minds that could be put to good use in area like the space program. This quality increase was primarily directed toward mathematics and sciences, but it doesn’t see that it gave much of an increase to the arts. I find it slightly ironic that art is created to commemorate an act that seems to have forgotten the merit of creativity, considering that this act is also a contributing factor to the heavy use of standardized testing.

The design of Solar Totem #1 is very planar. Each piece is a sheet of Cor-Ten Steel, cut into mostly odd quadrilaterals. The majority of these pieces are connected at a right angle, but to throw off the eye and offset the strange angles of each shape, some are placed jutting out from a wall or corner. The general shape of the sculpture reminds me of stacking cards. It has a definite strength, but everything is stacked in a sort of table-top upward growth. Once there are a number of sheets connected by the edge, another is placed on its flat side, creating a platform for the structure to continue upward. This type of design could be referencing the country’s desire to improve and grow in intellectual strength. Perhaps in the way the metal sheets create a base for upward construction, the NDEA created a platform for educational success.

Another point of artistic decision was the choice to build with Cor-Ten Steel. This is a material that grows stronger and rust-resistant as it ages. Maybe it isn’t just the strong appearance of steel that gave meaning to the material, but its uniquely resilient qualities that made it an obvious choice for this piece.

The history of this sculpture doesn’t end with its origins. On May 4th, 1970, the strong steel of Solar Totem #1 was hit by a speeding bullet. Drumm has been quoted expressing his regret that the sculpture had not taken on all the force from the national guardsmen instead of the Kent Students (see panel in image 2). Coincidentally, there had been controversy surrounding the NDEA in its title X, which would have required anyone benefiting from the act to renounce belief in overthrowing the United States Government. Twelve years later, the sculpture created in its honor was damaged by a bullet shot at students protesting the United States Government.

Solar Totem #1 was created by the same educators who may have protested title X of the NDEA, and took a bullet for the Students who protested the war. Now I think it stands as a symbol of strength in more than one way, and will remain a symbol of human resilience for a very long time.


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