PERSPECTIVE: The simple power of art and common spaces

Walkways, walls, lecterns, chairs and benches. Hardly rarities on a college campus.

But as rendered in bronze and granite on a major thoroughfare on the University of Dayton campus, these standard items carry great historical significance and critical contemporary purpose. At this Catholic, Marianist university, an artistic arrangement of three aligned chairs, a pulpit for a lectern, an inscribed wall, a bench, and a walkway that notably passes through it all express a shared commitment to bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to work for justice.

In the 10 months I have been president, I’ve continually been struck by the artistic simplicity and the poignancy of meaning produced by these five elements that make up our University’s memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The sculptural monument speaks to me about the importance of higher education’s daily work of educating for a highly diverse society, for justice and the dignity of each person, and for absolute inclusivity on our campuses, in our nation, and in our world. Indeed, it is with intentionality that the campus tours I personally give begin at this spot and with a chance for viewing of the memorial and reflection: it signals an essential core value of the University and the direction we are charting.

King’s signature moments — the “I Have a Dream” speech, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the garbage workers’ strike in Memphis — were major moments in the civil rights movement. But the movement was just as much about the daily work of King and his many associates advancing King’s simple eight-word message — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Art history professor Roger Crum, associate professor of art and design and Marianist brother M. Gary Marcinowski, and associate professor of art and design John Clarke, in consultation with our University community and local civil rights leaders, kept that daily work in mind when designing the memorial — “Give Us This Day Our Daily Quest.” The memorial commemorates King’s speech at the University of Dayton on Nov. 29, 1964, just days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Works of art are often complex entities. Memorials are even more so, presenting additional dimensions of history, engagement, and meaning as they evolve as works of public art. But with just five components, the trio of colleagues depicted a simple, powerful message.

Three chairs. One for King and two for community members who would continue putting King’s message into action locally. On King’s chair rests a suggestion of his removed suit coat and gently laid down Bible, intertwined symbols that his spirit is continually active within the campus community.

The pulpit. A central feature of King’s Baptist tradition from where, in countless churches, he delivered homilies and speeches that inspired and challenged so many to join and advance the civil rights movement.

The wall, bench and walkway. These complete a communal space for small gatherings and classes to come to the memorial to teach, learn and draw inspiration from King's work and legacy. Clarke, Crum, and Marcinowski deliberately placed the memorial across a high-traffic walkway to invite passers-by to pause and consider the meaning of the place and take that meaning away for future thought and inspired action. The wall contains the central message of King's speech on campus — "We have come a long way, but we have a long, long way to go." Nearby, on the bench, visitors read King's more direct statement of urgency — "The time is always ripe to do right."

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Absence. The memorial has no human form, not even of Dr. King himself, only subtly suggested in his coat and Bible. This absence is only in part a sorrowful reminder that King became absent all too soon. But King is both present and absent in this memorial, inviting (indeed challenging) contemplative visitors to see their role in carrying forward the daily work of King’s mission and the movement.

This memorial to Dr. King and his speech on campus serves as a reminder of his legacy and that the struggle for equality and justice continue. It's an ongoing journey requiring our collective will and action in the spirit of King and his messages that snowy night in 1964.

Individually, these components may be simple, but collectively, like the power of community, they can be a significant force in reminding us what is asked of us to continue the work of creating a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming world and to work for justice for all.

Dr. Eric Spina is president of the University of Dayton. This column first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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