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Fountain of the Pioneers: Shameful Sculpture?

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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

Jonathan Spalink

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