New Contemporary Metal-Art Show at KSU Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the Brutal Student Shootings

This May 4 Commemorative Medallion sparked the new exhibit at KSU.
This May 4 Commemorative Medallion sparked the new exhibit at KSU.

When Anderson Turner first came to Kent State University in 2005, he was tasked with finding the school's Commemorative Medallion marking the May 4 shootings. Somehow the artwork, given as a gift, had been misplaced. Two years later, while up in a rickety loft in the old KSU art building, Turner found the piece wrapped in dusty cloth, still in its neat hickory box with a purple cushion.

"It was very safe. It probably had been up there for 30 years," says Turner, who is the director for the School of Art Collection and Galleries. "I wondered though, 'What are we going to do with this?'"

Now 50 years after the brutal day that changed the university's legacy forever, the medallion is on display, along with 10 other contemporary metalwork artists' pieces in a new exhibition called Constructed Answer.

"This event is the first time I've shown it outside of the context of the [school's] collection," explains Turner, who co-curated the exhibition with Andrew Kuebeck, head of the university's jewelry/metals/enameling program. "It hasn't been hiding these last few years, it's just such a unique and precious thing."

When I visited, the pair were readying for the opening reception, pasting lettering and artwork descriptions onto the white walls of the Center for the Visual Arts' CVA Gallery. They've placed the medallion, which looks like a mix between a religious artifact and a statement necklace Cher would wear, near the entrance to catch people's attention right off.

As Turner explains, the piece was designed and created by seven seniors from what was then known as the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) right after the shootings in 1970.

"As I understand it," Turner says, "they were walking to meet their professors to plan their thesis shows when they heard about the shootings at Kent State. They then decided as a group to do this instead of an individual thing, and then gift it to us. And, yes, they still graduated."

Much of the design is based on sets of four: the date of the shooting and the number of students who were killed by the National Guard. The grape-size pearl at the heart of the medallion is banded with a cross of metal and is set on an octagon. Each link of the barbed wire-esque chain has four sides.

"I can't imagine pulling this off," Kuebeck says. "Metal work is kind of a solitary task. It's a huge accomplishment for a group of people to come together with something that has that much resolve."

While this is not the only work given to the university to commemorate the tragedy, the co-curators used the medallion as a jumping-off point to highlight metalwork, an art form that doesn't often get its own exhibition. The other pieces in Constructed Answer, made by artists from all around the country, deal with loss and tragedy and violence, but not necessarily May 4.

"We felt very free to do what we wanted curatorially in the pieces we selected," Kuebeck says. "We touched on a lot of interesting topics that might deserve their own shows ­­— from issues about body image and terrorism, to feminism and gay rights and gun violence — but I think we were able to put them in one cohesive show that made sense."

The artists included in the exhibition, whom Kuebeck says are all well-known in their field, are Boris Bally, Taehyun Bang, Marilyn DaSilva, Holland Houdek, Keith Lewis, Michael Nashef, Marissa Saneholtz, Stephen Saracino, Mel Someroski and Renée Zettle-Sterling. Each piece is deeply personal, showing, as Kuebeck says, everything from the destruction of one's home to one's homeland.

"I always tell my students they have to figure out how to make something as personal as possible," Kuebeck says. "When people are in school they start off making things that are a little bit safe and generic and more universal. But I think universal artists aren't the ones you remember; those who dig deep and make things that address their own experience are the ones who are more impactful."

After two years of planning, Kuebeck and Turner say they hope this exhibition can help continue the conversation about the shootings with the community and continue to promote healing.

"The legacy of May 4 is to ask a broader question: As a university, how do we handle something that horrible?" Turner says.

And through KSU's May 4 Visitors' Center and multi-tiered programing planned for the coming months, Turner says they aren't shying away from the 50th anniversary.

"I think the university realizes it can't forget that aspect of the past," Kuebeck says. "They have to figure out ways as an educational institution to show a modern audience how it happened, why it happened and to make sure it never happens again."

Upcoming artist talks at the Center for the Visual Arts include Renée Zettle-Sterling at noon on Feb. 7, in Room 165; and Holland Houdek at 2 p.m. on Feb. 28, in Room 140.