Above, Allendale Township sculpture artists are pictured: left to right, Brian Caponi, Ruby Miller, Norwood Viviano, Zyra Castillo and Teresa Zbiciak. Not pictured is Andrew Tankersley.

Color photos illustrate some of the many objects from community members that were cast in bronze for inclusion in the sculpture. At center is a model of the Allendale Township sculpture designed and executed by art and design students.

All photos, except as indicated, by Courtney Newbauer


by Mary Isca Pirkola

An ear of corn, an old-fashioned iron, a baseball mitt and a topographical relief map are just a few symbols of Allendale Township that were set in stone during a unique collaboration between township residents and Grand Valley art students.
When the township decided to include a sculpture in the renovation of an area park, township leaders turned to the university's Department of Art and Design for help. Assistant Professor Norwood Viviano selected five outstanding students, all seniors or recent graduates, for their talent, ability to work as part of a team and to commit to the long-term project, which took nearly a year.


"We saw an opportunity to create a gateway to the community," said Jim Beelen, Allendale Township supervisor. "We also wanted to develop a working relationship with our neighbor, Grand Valley, and sought their advice on this particular project."

The area at Lake Michigan Drive and 68th Avenue has gone through significant changes since the township was established in 1848. Once a commercial corner, then later a residential area, the land was cleared of older buildings and became available for redevelopment. Beelen and others gave the students mostly free reign on the sculpture design, asking only that it reflect the community's past while looking toward the future.

Since none of the students grew up in the Allendale area, one of their first tasks was to learn more about the township's history. They spoke with the township board and many community members to learn what was important to them. To get a better understanding of the area and how it has evolved into what it is today, they read the 100-year history of Allendale Township that was written for the centennial. They also visited Allendale's historical museum, Knowlton House. It was there they saw a series of quilts made of pieces sewn by community residents, said Brian Caponi, a recent graduate who worked on the project.

"That triggered the idea of creating a series of tiles cast in bronze from objects submitted by community members. It not only provided an opportunity for area residents to become involved," he said, "but provides insights to what their lives were like."

He also said that casting everyday objects from both the present and the past equalizes their historical relevance.

After the students brainstormed ideas, various designs were drawn to illustrate how the tiles could be used in a sculpture. A series of walls with embedded tiles evolved as the favored plan. Yet the final arrangement and materials also needed to work within the budget, provide lasting quality and be technologically feasible.

What evolved was a series of three curved concrete panels imbedded with the cast bronze tiles on the outside and a topographical map on the inside. Several cut-out areas also provide windows from the past to the future. A water feature was included and designed to gently cascade from the top of the walls, which mimic the contours of the rivers that act as the township's borders. All involved with the project are very pleased with the design, which won township approval to proceed.

"We had a lot of extra work in the beginning of this project comparing old and new processes," said Zyra Castillo. "For most of us, this was our first commissioned project, so we became perfectionists. We started with some pretty grand ideas, but quickly learned the reality of working within a budget, making efficient use of our time and being resourceful with materials. It was a very cohesive group experience and a tremendous learning experience."

The group gave a talk at Allendale High School to generate interest in the project and ask for donated objects. From the very start, the group was determined to keep ownership of the project in the community, rather than dictating what it should include.

Andrew Tankersley did a lot of work early in the project. He was a key technical adviser, built a form for modeling the wax and was the first to begin combining objects in interesting ways.

Teresa Zbiciak, another student who worked on the project, said the cast objects represent many items from the past, but also current times that will eventually be part of a bygone era. That was the idea behind the topographical map that shows rivers and streams, buildings and recognizable locations. The Allendale area has changed a lot over the years, and will continue to change in the years ahead.

Approximately 50 tiles were cast to be included in the walls. At first glance, they seem an odd assortment: fish, bicycle, old toys and kitchen implements. But collectively, they tell a larger story of the township's past and provide a glimpse into the lives of people who settled there. Many donated items came with a story as unique as the object.

A woman from the community donated a pair of shoes that had belonged to her late husband. She hoped their inclusion in the sculpture might be seen by her grandchildren someday. Another woman loaned a small tooled-leather purse, a style that was popular when she was a teenager in the 1970s. It has a lot of sentimental value and she didn't want it damaged in the casting process. The team of artists took on the challenge and used a 3-D laser scanner to capture the details as a digital file then CNC milled to a high-density foam block that was used for casting.

Ruby Miller joined the project a bit later than the other students because she spent a semester abroad in Ghana, where news of the project caught up with her. "I watched their PowerPoint presentation, which they prepared for Allendale Township meeting, and became very interested in working on it. I did a lot of preparing wax for the pour and experiments with different techniques for making molds, such as pressing objects into wet clay.

Many of the techniques used were new to the students and required advice and assistance from experienced technicians. Tony Oosting, who does a lot of cement work for Grand Valley, was contracted to create forms and the cement mix for the sculpture walls. Mike Tiano, an art teacher in who lives in Allendale, is a Grand Valley alumnus. He also has a fountain business and helped with the cascading water feature. Jim Visser is Grand Valley's 3-D shop technical supervisor and ran much of the equipment, such as the burnout kiln and furnace, needed to do the bronze castings. Viviano helped the students research materials, work with the new 3-D laser scanner and CNC milling machine, and problem solve any design and technical concerns.

"This has been an exciting opportunity for these very self-directed students to create a professional project," Viviano said. "It is extremely impressive for a group of undergraduates to create artwork on this level. The other exciting aspect has been working with the Allendale community. We hope the success of this project lays the groundwork for more collaborations in the future."

The dedication for the sculpture is planned for spring, when park renovations are complete.

Page last modified July 29, 2011