The most prominent public art at the University of Wyoming can be seen from nearly anywhere on the spacious quad in the heart of campus known as Prexy’s Pasture.
It’s been a recognizable feature of the campus for more than three decades, but in recent years, the sculpture has taken criticism from all angles for its content, placement and state of disrepair.
The University Family Statue, as it is popularly called, was sculpted by faculty member — and internationally renowned artist — Robert Russin in 1983. The white carrara marble sculpture depicts a mother, father and child — abstract forms rising from the same base and linked by their arms.
UW Art Professor Ricki Klages chairs the President’s Public Art Committee, a body formed in 2013 to oversee how art is installed on campus and to establish a method for accepting — or rejecting — art. She said the committee received a couple of requests to move or replace Russin’s sculpture.
“I know when he first produced this sculpture, it was not considered controversial in any way — why would it be? It’s a family group with child,” Klages said. “But certainly in our more politicized kind of mindset, the interpretation of a sculpture — that you could consider to be very innocuous — is now somewhat loaded.”
The sculpture has drawn criticism, mainly from students, for depicting a nuclear family — one which does not represent students coming from households with same-sex parents or single mothers or fathers.
“I definitely think they have valid concerns,” ASUW President Ben Wetzel said. “Whatever your background is, you should feel at all times that particularly, in the centerpiece on campus, that you feel at home, you feel like whatever’s there does encompass and embody the reasons and the ideas behind how you grew up.”
The sculpture was the subject of at least two ASUW bills in the past six years. One of these, passed in 2016, states the student government does not support the sculpture’s current placement and asks the public art committee to seek student input on alternative locations.
Former ASUW Sen. Sarah Maze, who sponsored the bill, said the senate received a lot of feedback from students who felt the sculpture was not representative of the diverse student body.
“A lot of people walk by it every day and don’t really notice it, but it can affect some people,” Maze said. “(The bill) is more of a call to action for the conversation. Let’s talk about this, let’s explore opportunities for relocating it.”
Others have criticized the sculpture for aesthetic reasons. In a column about UW’s public art, published on WyoFile earlier this month, UW Professor Donal O’Toole referred to the sculpture’s figures as “bleached Teletubbies,” before pointing out that the sculpture is “cracked, chipped and badly repaired.”
This second point is the biggest area of concern for the public art committee, Klages said, adding the marble — of the same variety found in Michelangelo’s David — had been repaired poorly, with epoxy glue chunks now visible to passersby.
“Our main concern is the sculpture needs to be refurbished,” she said. “It needs to be repolished, it needs to be cleaned up, it needs to be repaired appropriately and then, if it is resituated, it needs to be appropriately situated and rededicated with full approval of the family.”
Klages said the sculpture should probably be moved indoors and protected from Wyoming’s sometime extreme temperatures.
Steamboat and Skater Guy
If the sculpture were to be moved, UW would have to decide what, if anything, to put in its place.
Throughout the years, UW community members have suggested both predictable and outlandish replacements.
“That’s been kind of an interesting topic of conversation as well — if we were to do something, what would we do?,” Wetzel said. “Right now, it’s kind of so ingrained … that it’s hard to wrap your mind around something else being placed there.”
A 2012 ASUW bill compelled the student government to earmark $125,000 to assist with the purchase of a horse-and-rider Steamboat statue — similar to at least four other statues matching that description currently on campus.
“Someone said, ‘Oh, well it’s easy, we’ll just put another steamboat there,’” Wetzel said. “And a bunch of people threw up their arms and said, ‘We don’t need another steamboat on campus, we’ve got enough.’”
Apart from concerns of unoriginality, another Steamboat statue would raise separate issues as well. For example, the direction of the horse was a concern to some when the issue came before ASUW.
“That was a point of conversation that, ‘If we put Steamboat there, somebody is going to get the head and somebody’s going to get the ass — and we don’t want it to be us,’” Wetzel said. “That was a topic of conversation — I think somewhat off-handedly, kind of laughing about the situation — but yes, that was brought up.”
It could also be an odd placement for a symbol which so frequently represents UW Athletics, Wetzel said.
“Not everyone connects Steamboat with academics and with culture of campus and more so with athletics,” he said. “So, they wanted something that was more encompassing of all students, not something that has been branded and recognized in connection with our athletics department.”
Klages said the horse-and-rider as it’s most commonly used could be just as contentious as the family sculpture. It calls forward images of an idealized white-centered west and the concept of manifest destiny.
“It’s so traditional, too,” Klages said. “We would like to show campus as a forward-thinking place to be and if we keep harkening back to the past — and to think about, ‘Well, this is the thing that most people will find appealing’ — that’s really not contemporary art. You know it’s going to be the lowest common denominator or the most obvious choice.”
Klages said temporary art — placed in the very visible center of Prexy’s Pasture for a year or two — might be a good way to start conversations on campus.
Even a Steamboat sculpture, crafted creatively, could use the traditional image to start new conversations, Klages said.
“There are ways to go about that that could be really exciting or interesting and maybe make people think about things a little differently,” she said.
It’s unclear what would go in the center of Prexy’s — if the family sculpture was indeed moved — but one suggestion, possibly a joke, gained traction in 2017.
An online petition directed toward UW President Laurie Nichols requested the family sculpture be replaced with a statue of Skater Guy — the folk hero name given by students to local man Matt Groathouse, who frequently practices skateboard tricks on campus.
The petition has 783 signatures, but the change.org page has had little activity in the past 10 months.
Artist intent and artwork impact
The family sculpture’s creator, Robert Russin, is responsible for many recognizable works of art on the UW campus and in Laramie. He is also responsible for the Benjamin Franklin statue south of the Arts and Sciences Building and the Abraham Lincoln bust visible from Interstate-80.
Russin’s contributions to the community — and his intent — should be part of any conversation about moving the family sculpture, Klages said.
“This is a very significant piece by a well-known sculptor who is no longer with us, but gave very much to the University of Wyoming,” she said. “We need to honor that.”
Russin certainly did not mean exclude others with his art, Klages said.
“His most common theme in his sculptures were based on families and his in particular,” she said. “The mother-father-child kind of thing, the mother-child or father-child — he tended to celebrate that. It was a common theme of his so it really fit with his sculptural vision.”
Wetzel said the artist’s intent was important, but needed to be considered alongside impact.
“Sometimes, intent and impact don’t always line up,” he said. “And I know that Russin’s intent was not to do that at all, but if it truly is having an impact of isolating and calling attention to students who might not have come from the background being portrayed there, I think that’s something to be considered.”
For Wetzel and Maze, the issue came down to trying to see the sculpture from another person’s perspective.
“I definitely come at it with a bias because I did grow up in a nuclear family,” Wetzel said. “I can’t even begin to recognize what it says to them when they see it and so, I think those are definitely concerns we need to hear out and recognize.”
Klages agreed that student perspective should be one of many elements that feed into the discussion.
“The feelings of the students in regards to the sculpture should be taken into consideration,” she said. “It’s just clearly what you put in its place would have to be carefully thought out … For us, it’s not that it shouldn’t be removed. It’s more that it should be appropriately addressed with a lot of other things that are part of the conversation.”
Klages said while it could benefit UW — and the artwork itself — to move the sculpture, the late artist’s family, who manages Russin’s art, should be part of the conversation.
Joe Russin, the artist’s son, could not be reached for comment.