A piece of art that has stood for decades in Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park is set to come down. Some criticize the Fountain of the Pioneers, as it’s known, as offensive and even racist. It features a "settler" figure who stands head and shoulders above a man in a headdress. In his left hand, the pioneer holds a long, thin object.
“Which, to me, strikes me as a club,” says “Why’s That?” participant Frank Vargas.
Vargas says he knew the fountain, but didn’t look closely at it until he heard about the controversy. Now, looking up at the sculptures, he wonders what the pioneer is holding.
“If not a club, some sort of weapon. If not a weapon of any kind then maybe I’m totally off-base,” he says.
The object does not seem to give much away. It looks like a board as much as anything. In hopes of an interpretation, Frank and I visited city Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro.
Ferraro says the sculpture’s story begins in the 1930s, when a civic group sponsored a contest to redesign the park’s existing fountain, which had been widely derided as “silo-esque.”
“The young lady who won the redesign-the-fountain contest of our previous fountain decided that it was something she couldn’t quite handle and our city engineer decided that it was something they could not build,” Ferraro says.
Marcelline Gougler, who won the contest, was a student of Chicago artist Alfonso Iannelli. Ferraro says Iannelli is remembered for his work with Frank Lloyd Wright, and for his commercial designs.
“He was a poster designer, he designed coffee pots and other industrial, commercial things. He pretty much designed almost anything,” she says.
Gougler, the contest winner, created her fountain design with help from Iannelli’s studio. After she won, she asked for Iannelli’s help with the Kalamazoo fountain. His first revisions did not include human figures.
“The fountain that was in the park already was a bowl, with a spray in the center and then sprays that came in from the outside. So what this looks like to me is sort of an Art Moderne interpretation of that, reinterpretation, take it out of the Victorian frilly, and it looks very pointy and sharp,” Ferraro says of one of his models.
But Iannelli kept revising his plan, “and then he designed the fountain portraying the westward-facing pioneer standing and looking over the head of the eastward-facing Native American.”
That, of course, is the fountain the city built, with help from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The construction doubled as an employment project. Ferraro says the use of concrete minimized the need for skilled labor.
“It probably was not the best choice because concrete can be really good if it’s cast just right, and carefully, but if you’ve got unskilled people doing it, and you can see how some of the panels have eroded really badly and others are doing fine,” she says.
The work began in 1939 and the city dedicated the fountain the next year.
Iannelli did leave some clues about the sculpture’s meaning. He told the Kalamazoo Public Library that the headdress figure is shown, in his words, “in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances.”
Frank Vargas wants to know what the pioneer is holding. Ferraro says she has heard many theories, but she interprets the object in the pioneer’s hand as a walking stick, held in the left hand to leave the right one free.
“If it were a gun he’d be holding it in his right hand, ready to pull up and fire. If it was a club, in my mind he’d be holding it in his right hand,” she says.
Ferraro adds that she’s never seen a record where Iannelli defined the object in the pioneer’s hand, but she points out that an artwork's meaning is partly in the mind of the viewer.
“Even if we understand perfectly exactly what the artist meant, what it has come to mean today is again a point of interpretation,” she says.
Of course, many people have come to interpret the fountain as painfully stereotypical. The supposedly Native figure wears a headdress that did not come from the cultures of the tribes of Southwest Michigan. And far from being “absorbed,” Native people never stopped living in the Kalamazoo area, though some were forced to leave.
After many comments from supporters and opponents of removal, in March the city commission voted to take the fountain out of the park and to store the sculptures. It’s not clear when or where they will be displayed again.
Frank Vargas indicates that his question about what the pioneer in Iannelli’s fountain was holding has ended in complexities.
“I didn’t expect that there would be so much breadth to how we could approach this thing in terms of history and the symbolism and parallels to what other people are thinking,” he said.