Northern State University begins a new academic year Monday. And this semester campus looks a little different. Five sculptures were unveiled last week, marking what some at NSU hope is only the beginning of an international sculpture garden.
The five sculptures that now stand in the plaza at NSU don’t necessarily scream “international” at first glance. But the story behind how this artwork ended up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, provides a glimpse at just how small the world is becoming. The pieces were created by Tuan Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and escaped through Cambodia to the United States after the Vietnam War. They are owned by a collector in India, who wanted to find a place for the sculptures to be enjoyed, and the owner approached the Picture Art Foundation based in California.
Benjamin Victor is a South Dakota sculptor and artist in residence at NSU. He was acquainted with the Picture Art Foundation through one of his sculptures, and felt Northern was the perfect place for an international sculpture garden.
“It just started basically as a question because they were running into some issues with these pieces wanted to be donated to a university in California and there was some red tape there,” Victor says. “And I just kind of offered up our university off the cuff, not having any permission from the administration here. But I thought, I know that artist, I know his work, and these are wonderful pieces and I’d love to have them here.”
It took about two years to bring the eight to twelve feet tall bronze statues to campus. And although they weigh about 2,500 pounds each, Victor describes them as looking very light and ethereal. He says that’s part of what gives the sculpture garden an international feel.
“And the look and feel of them these otherworldly figures that could be anyone,” Victor says. “So they really embody a concept or an idea more than a certain specific individual. So I like that. I feel like anybody can relate to them.”
Victor says he hopes the sculpture garden is a place where students can slow down and enjoy the moment they’re in. I decide to see for myself if the space has that effect, and I head over to take a closer look at the statues when nobody else is around.
The pieces stand in a cement courtyard, with bits of landscaping around each. Benches along the side allow visitors a place to sit and view the sculptures, and on days like today, listen to the wind sift through the trees on the green lawn that surrounds the space. Victor is right, it is a peaceful place, a good spot to sit and meditate.
Many of the statues do seem weightless as the men and women leap off the ground, or appear to float in the air. Three of the pieces feature musical instruments…flutes and violins, and one feels like watching two dancers in a ballet. Another features four women, two who appear to have wings, supporting a sphere on their shoulders.
While the pieces add a new look to campus, NSU President Jim Smith says an international sculpture garden also reflects the growing diversity of the student body.
“They also mean that we are being recognized as an institution that is international,” Smith says. “The Picture Art Foundation could have given these pieces to anyone. They clearly could be in Longwood Gardens in the south of Philadelphia and some people might say that’s where I would expect they would go. But the desire of this foundation was to really bring them to a place that’s about international relations and international development.”
Smith says NSU continues to focus on bringing more diversity to campus. This year he says about 240 international students are studying at Northern, many of them undergrads. He says that’s beneficial for everyone.
“Our students that come from around the world,” Smith says. “They live in the residence halls with kids from smaller towns in South Dakota like Ipswich or Groton or Webster or Beresford or wherever you might pick, who may not know someone from Korea or China or Egypt or Israel or the Bahamas, or we have Bangladeshi students for the first time this semester. I think it’s important for them to understand the world is a very multicultural place and it’s all integrated very well for us, and the art integrates with that.”
Some of NSU’s new students, from literally all over the world, are on hand to help unveil the sculptures.
Busra Fatima Sulmani is from India. This is her first time in the U.S.
“And trust me before this I was not knowing that this beautiful place existed. And it’s really beautiful here, people are very friendly, it’s nice,” Sulmani says.
She says the international sculpture garden is a great idea.
“It promotes brotherhood and all the nations,” Sulmani says. “The negative stereotypes, we come here and we break it. And we know each other, and there are some myths about some countries and some cultures, and here we come and we start loving everything, it’s really great.”
Officials with the Picture Art Foundation were on hand for the unveiling as well including Founder Doctor Thai Ha. He says he hopes these five sculptures are only the beginning of international art displays at Northern State University. President of the Picture Art Foundation, Mike Johnson says there are more things that make us similar than those that make us different. They want to continue to bring cultures together through art, all over the world, including right here in Aberdeen, South Dakota.