Damaged Art Reveals History of a Violent Era in NEOhio

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INTRO:  Monday marks the 45th anniversary of the day when four students were killed by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University, during an anti-war rally.  The cultural divisions of those times have been examined in numerous books and documentaries, but sometimes history leaves its mark in other ways. ideastream’s David C. Barnett explores how two pieces of public art in Northeast Ohio serve as unsettling reminders of a violent era. 


Akron artist Don Drumm created a sculpture called Sun Totem #1 on the Kent State campus in 1967.  He built the towering structure out of a series of half-inch-thick steel plates, set at different angles

DON DRUMM: The idea was that the sun would come through this, and as the sun comes up and changes, during the day, there are different shadows thrown from one plate to the other. 

Three years later, on May 4th, 1970, the sculpture was forever altered, during an anti-war rally, when troops from the Ohio National Guard fired on a group of student protestors.

SOUND: May 4th gunshots

Four students were killed and nine wounded in that fusillade. And one of the bullets pierced Don Drumm’s sculpture.  He was shaken when he saw that bullet hole, several days later.

DON DRUMM: I was almost crying, I was so shook up, because this was my alma mater. That was very emotional to me.

It was a time of mixed emotions and great social upheaval.  Two months earlier, another piece of art had been damaged in Northeast Ohio due to violence, but in this case, the destruction was apparently intentional.


In the early hours of March 24, 1970, an original casting of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker was blown off its pedestal in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art by a bomb.

WILLIAM ROBINSON: What you see here is he’s sitting on a huge rock.  The feet area has been totally splayed apart, the feet are totally blown off. 

William Robinson, the Cleveland museum’s curator of Modern European art, looks up at the enormous work, which was remounted on a new base following the incident. After determining that the damage couldn’t be repaired, the museum decided to display it, as is.  Robinson says the police blamed a left-wing radical group for the crime, and he finds it ironic that Rodin intended his Thinker to be contemplating the foolishness of mankind.

WILLIAM ROBINSON: So, now you have this figure who’s sitting on top of a base that’s been blown apart by dynamite over a political event.  I think that’s very powerful

Just as powerful as the bullet hole that remains in Don Drumm’s sculpture at Kent State. 

DON DRUMM: I let them know early on that I did not want anyone messing with that bullet hole.  I feel the piece itself should be its own memorial.

And that’s exactly what it’s become, according to Laura Davis, the founding director of Kent State’s May 4th Visitors Center --- a museum filled with posters, photographs and other documents of the time.

LAURA DAVIS: People are fascinated by the idea of the hole.  They want to touch it, and put their finger through it.  It’s such a physical reality that shots were fired in this place --- it’s real. 

Every day, the sun continues to play off the metal plates of Solar Totem #1, casting shadows in many directions.  And for the past 45 years, a shaft of sunlight shines through a .30 caliber bullet hole in one of those plates, illuminating a piece of history.  DCB, 90.3



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