The “Fountain of the Pioneers” by Alfonso Iannelli, 1940

Many in West Michigan have heard about a sculpture in Kalamazoo, Mich., that has become the target of politically correct wrath. The “Fountain of the Pioneers,” a work by artist Alfonso Iannelli, depicts a towering pioneer with a club in his hand standing over a Native American depicted in a kneeling position. Activists say the sculpture should be removed because it is a “monument to evil subjugation, the violent removal of the people who were first on this land.”

Those who want the sculpture to stay describe it as a memorial of the westward progression and conquest of the United States by pioneers and that while a Native American is shown in an inferior position, this is not meant to be a racist statement implying that Native Americans are inferior.

I looked around and found a source that has direct input from Iannelli — Mr. David Jameson, the president of Chicago-based ArchiTech Gallery, which owns the majority of Iannelli’s archives, including sketches, sculptures, correspondance, etc. His research regarding this sculpture indicates that for his time, Iannelli had an uncharacteristically high regard for Native Americans, and through his sculpture indicated their valiant resistance to the seizure of their land by the “white man.” Activists may claim that the sculpture is a shameful image of racism and hate. But could the “shame” they see in the “Fountain of the Pioneers” be caused by the feelings the sculpture is intended to produce?

Shortly after the sculpture was commissioned, Iannelli wrote this to a now defunct magazine called The American City describing the sculpture and his intent behind it.

“I wanted to see suggested the progression of the growth of Kalamazoo, the efforts of the pioneers, the romantic sadness of the vanquished Indians, the onward strides of the industrial accomplishments, the prolific richness of the country they were blessed with…the tower symbolizing the pioneer’s advance and the Indian’s stalwart and fateful resistance…”

Mr. Jameson, in a letter to the Kalamazoo Gazette submitted this week, encourages the city to keep the sculpture exactly as it is.

Kalamazoo is fortunate indeed to have a major public monument by a giant in American art. That it also remains one of the most genuine interpretations of his feelings is a testament to the power of abstraction in modern sculpture. Kalamazoo recognized this in 1940 and should be honored to celebrate it now.

Following is Mr. Jameson’s (owner and director of ArchiTech Gallery) full letter to the Kalamazoo Gazette:

In regards to the current controversy:

Bronson Park’s “Fountain of the Pioneers” was designed by Alfonso Iannelli after a 1936 competition won by his student, Marcelline Gougler. She deferred to his decades of experience in creating public sculptures after her selection by the Kalamazoo Business and Professional Women’s Club. Iannelli had been brought to Chicago by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1914 to be the sculptor of the famous Midway Gardens “Sprites.”

In April of 1940, Flora Roberts, the head of the Kalamazoo Public Library,
asked Iannelli for his interpretation of the new fountain to be kept as a public record. He responded: “Regarding the meaning of the ‘Fountain of the Pioneers,’ the scheme of the fountain conveys the advance of the pioneers and the generations that follow, showing the movement westward, culminating in the tower symbol of the pioneer…, while the Indian is shown in posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances. The pattern of the rail indicates the rich vegetation and produce of the land.”

The next year, Iannelli wrote an article for “The American City” magazine wherein he wrote:
“I wanted to see suggested the progression of the growth of Kalamazoo, the efforts of the pioneers, the romantic sadness of the vanquished Indians, the onward strides of the industrial accomplishments, the prolific richness of the country they were blessed with…the tower symbolizing the pioneer’s advance and the Indian’s stalwart and fateful resistance,…”

In neither reference has Iannelli denigrated the people we now refer to as Native Americans. In fact, Iannelli seems to have had a far more accurate and objective opinion about Indian treatment than all of popular culture had been promoting at that time. John Wayne movies were far and away more stereotypically negative.

More relevant, however, is that the symbolism of the lower positioned Indian and the “higher” pioneer is almost secondary to the politically neutral “formalism”
that Iannelli used in this piece. He was more in love with the shape of the warbonnet (which may be culturally incorrect, but more sculpturally compelling)
as the leading element in the western face of the figural group.

I was informed in Chicago that a controversy has erupted between those who consider Iannelli’s depiction “immoral and shameful” and those who feel that the fountain is a historical object that expresses an earlier historical event.

ArchiTech Gallery owns the bulk of the Iannelli archives and thousands of his drawings from throughout his career. After years studying his letters,
lectures and job files, I’ve learned that few American citizens and almost no other artists respected “Indians” more than Iannelli. So it was fortuitous that the City of Kalamazoo commissioned such a sympathetic creator to build a major civic monument.

This alarm bell sounded by the “immoral and shameful” contingent strikes me as similar to the incident of Afganistan’s Taliban rulers destroying the giant stone Buddhas that outraged the West. The Taliban may have been sincerely offended by a figurative symbol of another philosophy but it was their intolerance that offended the world.

Historically, art objects of previous eras ranging from Egyptian tombs and Greek portrait busts to even Notre Dame cathedral have been destroyed by “politically correct” vandals. Just because history is written by the victors doesn’t mean it never happened.

Iannelli’s intent may have been sympathetic in his interpretation of Native American subjugation by the white pioneers, but what if he had done the opposite?
What if he had abstracted them as savage beasts whose sole purpose was to rape the white women and impede the progress of his “moral superiors?” Then he would have been marching in lockstep with popular culture at that time and his sculpture would have truly been representative of of the national psyche.

That sculpture, too, would have deserved to remain in Bronson Park as a reminder of our tragic history. But it would be only one of the countless depictions of human error and mis-representation that have led us to this point in time.

Kalamazoo is fortunate indeed to have a major public monument by a giant in American art. That it also remains one of the most genuine interpretations of his feelings is a testament to the power of abstraction in modern sculpture.

Kalamazoo recognized this in 1940 and should be honored to celebrate it now.

David Jameson
Owner/director
ArchiTech Gallery
Chicago


  • Amber

    I think they should keep the damn thing

  • Andreas Morgen

    As an aquaintance of Mr. Jameson as well as an owner of numerous works by Alsonso Ianelli’s studio I cannot agree more with him. To remove such a great work of art would be entirely counterproductive to the expression of everyone’s freedom of speech. I also beleive the quote by Ianelli also shows his respect for Native Americans and is in no way negative or condescending. It further should be kept as a reminder of the mistreatment of Native Americans. I think the idea of removing this work of art is political correctness too excess.
    Sometimes removing things that remind us of times that should never be repeated can be a mistake for it causes us to forget these same shameful times. There is a famous quote that those who forget history are bound to repeat it……..that would be mistake & a tragedy and Ianelli’s work causes us to remember and contemplate on the wrongs done to Native Americans.

  • Alex

    Needless to say because for educated part of the society it is a absolutely obvious that political correctness is a poor substitute for a total lack of education and cultural emptiness. It is not uncommon that general layers of population interpret culture as nothing more than a colorful festival or parade filled with surrogate dances, phony costumes and excessive amounts of ethnic foods. Unfortunately our educational system, besides the fact that it doesn’t really teach anything except how to cheer for high school football team, it certainly doesn’t offer sufficient and unbias courses of science, and definitely doesn’t scratch surface of world cultural heritage and understanding of fine arts. I had given up trying to talk to people surrounding me (and by the natue of my business I am surrounded at minimum with bachelors degrees holders, in many cases graduate and post graduate), and I deeply regret to admit that all my attempts to engage at least basic conversation about fine arts have ended up in dead silence in response.
    As we can see there is unbroken ground and empty space of poorly educated minds that with lack of better information get filled with rubbish such as political correctness and “green” ideas symbolizing coffee shop politics that lead to twisting, distorting adn misinterpreting cultural heritage or silly attempts to save earth from natural chemical and biological processes within.
    Any display of so called political correctness comes with lack of historical and cultural education, reversed racism and unexplainable hatred to our own heritage as former Europeans in order to “make a good face” by patronizing other nations that have different historic paths and values to the degree of total absurd . As a result: disturbing combination of negative IQ and outraged PC, groups of maniacs that promote twisted ideas, distort the truth and destroy cultural and historic values.

  • Keith

    I am reminded of a protest I saw in Okinawa Japan a couple years back. The Okinawans were protesting because the Japanese were efforting to delete a significant bit of WW2 history. Near the end of the battle for Okinawa, the Japanese military told the Okinawans to leap from cliffs because their death would be a better choice than to be captured by the Americans. Of course many Okinawans did just that. Today, as embarassing as it may be, they don’t want the truth to be removed from their history books.
    Facts cannot be argued. Iannelli was an artist and made a political and historical statement of fact via the fountain. The fountain states the truth; Europeans came and successfully ousted the locals. Like it or not.

  • HA!

    It also indicate something of a sexual nature. The natives face is in the mans belly. It totally represent not only the natives as sub-servant but also deplict the rape, murder and pilliage of the settlers on the people of this land. I want it to stay exactly where it is as a shameful reminder of what we are in this country. Outsted the natives…lite words…uneducated, ignorant people objection…pretension pride from a white man…Your people, the acts of your people will never be forgotten by ours.