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The History Lesson From Damaged Art in Northeast Ohio

Visitors leave chalk drawings around the bullet hole on Sun Totem #1 (PHOTO: Steve Grant)

By David C. Barnett

May 4th marks the 45 th 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. 

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

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

The work was made of a hard, durable metal, but it was constantly changing. Three years later, on May 4 th, 1970, the sculpture was permanently changed, during an anti-war rally, when troops from the Ohio National Guard fired on a group of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, during the Vietnam war.

Four students were killed and nine wounded. And one of the bullets pierced Don Drumm’s sculpture, which stood in the line of fire, halfway between the guardsmen and the protestors.  Drumm was shaken when he saw that bullet hole, several days later.

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

Two months earlier, another piece of art had been famously 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 by a bomb, in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

William Robinson, the Cleveland museum’s curator of Modern European art, looks up at the enormous work.

"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." 

The sculpture was remounted on a new base following the incident. After determining that the damage couldn’t be repaired, the museum decided to display the piece, as is --- damage and all.  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.

"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."

Al Albano makes a living repairing damaged art.  The studios of his Intermuseum Conservation Association are filled with torn canvases being restored, and statues getting broken arms replaced. Albano agrees the blown-out base of The Thinker was a powerful message in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but he wonders if it really touches a modern viewer.

"I’m not sure that the impact of that event really sustains any poignancy, looking at the Thinker in that exploded position.  And I would even speculate that some people may think that that’s a work of art that is supposed to be displayed that way." 

But, he says that’s not the case with the bullet hole in Don Dumm’s sculpture

"Somehow, the resonance of the events at Kent State have never gone away.  And I think that’s a very powerful difference."

The artist agrees: "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.  She’s the founding director of Kent State’s May 4th Visitors Center --- a museum filled with posters, photographs and other documents of the time.

"People are fascinated by the idea of the hole," she says.  "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. They want to touch it, and put their finger through it.  And also, during the commemorations, they commonly draw a peace sign around the hole.  And they write messages about making the world a better place."

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.  

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.