May 08, 2024

When the Kat’s away…she meets Aluminum Jesus

By Kathy Grant Westbrook [email protected]

For a minute or two, I didn’t like the campus of Gonzaga University. Then I fell in love with it.

Gonzaga is a private Jesuit university located in Spokane, Washington. The first time I heard of it was back in 2015 during March Madness when the school’s basketball team made it to the Elite Eight. Of course, in the years since, I’ve heard the name many more times, and I’ve watched the Zags play.

The fact that I’d heard of Gonzaga was really neither here nor there. Anytime I’m traveling, if an opportunity to visit a college or university campus presents itself, I’m gonna take it, regardless of whether I’m familiar with the school or not. I just happen to love wandering around campuses.

The hotel where Steve and I were staying last week was located very near Gonzaga, so while he was working one day, I decided to pop over and check out the campus, which I ended up entering from a side street in a fairly inauspicious spot. I wasn’t impressed. But looking back, I judged (and, therefore, misjudged) the campus way too quickly.

During the hour and a half I spent wandering around, I discovered the stately main entrance to the university, found the grounds to be beautifully landscaped, and — although the architecture of some of the buildings can best be described as uninspired — I also found others (like the historic, twin-steepled St. Aloysius Church) to be magnificent.

But as far as I’m concerned, the key to the school’s charm is its outdoor artwork, in the form of all sorts of statues and sculptures, scattered generously all over campus. Some are prominently displayed, so you can’t help but notice them. Others, though, are almost tucked away, so it’s a nice little surprise when you catch one out of the corner of your eye.

Of all the pieces I saw (and I’m sure there are many I missed), here are five that stood out to me:

I’ll start with one that probably isn’t even technically a work of art — but its message is such that I can’t not mention it. It’s a four-sided, cedar Peace Pole that looks to be about eight feet tall. It stands unadorned, except for a plaque on each of its sides, each plaque stating in one of four different languages — English, Tibetan, Hebrew and Arab — “May Peace Prevail On Earth.” May peace prevail, indeed.

Because Gonzaga is a Catholic-affiliated school (although students don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to attend), much of its artwork is religious in nature, and that’s the case with numbers two and three on my list of favorites. “Hand of Christ” stands about five or six feet tall, a sculpture whose dark metal composition stands in stark contrast to the orangish brick building behind it. It portrays Christ’s scarred forearm and hand — a nail driven through its palm —stretching from the ground, skyward. As with any work of art, I’m sure its meaning can be interpreted in different ways. Is the magnification of Christ’s pierced hand a way of forcing us to look more closely at his suffering? Or does it signify that despite — and because of — his suffering, he is always reaching out to us? Or both?

And then there’s the Sacred Heart statue — or, as it’s sometimes called, Aluminum Jesus. At nine feet tall, this portrayal of Jesus is angular, symmetrical, understated. The heart and cross depicted on the chest of Jesus stand out against the statue’s purposeful plainness. This portrayal of Jesus is striking in its simplicity and a reminder that, at least to me, our faith can be strikingly simple at its core. (In this week’s “Kat’s Away” post on Facebook, if you look closely, you can see Aluminum Jesus in the background.)

Moving from the sacred to the secular, there is a bronze statue of a casually dressed guy perched nonchalantly on a rock next to a set of golf clubs; it’s none other than Harry Lillis Crosby. Never heard of him? How about if I told you this famous crooner was practically obsessed with having a white Christmas? “Bing” Crosby had a special connection to Gonzaga, having grown up in a house that has since been absorbed by the university campus, and eventually enrolling in the school for a time. He left without graduating (who needs a bachelor’s when you have those pipes?) but was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in 1937. He remained a strong supporter of the school and his statue stands in front of the Crosby Student Center.

The last sculpture I’ll mention is one that caught my eye as I was wrapping up my visit. Glancing to my left as I started to pass by the Jundt Art Center and Museum, I spotted…well, I wasn’t sure what I spotted…but it was obvious that it was the most abstract piece of artwork I’d come across yet. It consisted of four brick “columns,” one of which was topped by a zigzag metal sculpture and two of which were topped by mosaic zigzag sculptures. When I went to have a closer look, I was disappointed to find no plaque telling me anything about it. Walking around to the back, I noted a small detail I’m sure many people miss — in one of the bricks, the following words were etched: “THE TIME IS 12:05.” And in a smaller brick to its left, an etching portrayed a clock showing the time as 12:05.

I was so intrigued by this piece that I later emailed the art museum for information and received a prompt response from Dr. Paul A. Manoguerra, the museum’s director and curator. The sculpture, created by artist Robert Harrison in 2001 with help from Gonzaga art students, is titled “Cassiopeia and Cephius,” named after two constellations (although, from the brief investigating I’ve done online, the spelling of the latter is actually “Cepheus,” which makes me wonder: What was the artist’s reason for choosing an alternate spelling?). As for the intriguing etching on the bricks, Manoguerra, wrote, “I have always imagined the time, 12:05, represents a particular night when Harrison viewed the constellations the sculpture is named for, but that is only a guess on my part.”

Cassiopeia and Cephius, Aluminum Jesus, Hand of Christ, the Peace Pole, Bing Crosby — what a wonderful, eclectic mix of artwork. And what a wonderful way to remember my visit to Gonzaga University.

Next week: Want to know what’s smaller than a breadbox and only slightly more comfortable? A coach-class seat on a plane!