Under the Gaze of Sentinel

SentinelOn the green space near the west end of Pennsylvania Hall stands an unusual stone structure. This simple "rock of rocks" has kept quiet watch over the campus for more than two decades - and yet, remarkably, few on campus know much about it.

Of course, a lack of a knowledge about this structure hasn't stopped students and others from calling it different things. "The shark fin," "the sore thumb," "the whale's tooth," "the wall" are just a few of the nicknames. But almost no one, it seems, knows the actual name, Sentinel. Even fewer could probably name the sculptor, Martin Puryear.

Made of mortar and a variety of indigenous stones - materials intentionally chosen by Puryear to suggest the tradition of local stone barn and farmhouse construction - Sentinel was built to commemorate the College's sesquicentennial anniversary in 1982. The work itself is meant to be both an understated and an imposing organic form; gentle, sturdy, and resolute are adjectives that perhaps best convey its position as a sculpture. Like the institution, the piece was crafted to endure.

Sentinel commissioned

The original idea for a sculpture celebrating the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg College came from the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee, which asked then President Charles E. Glassick to appoint a special committee to develop specific recommendations for the commissioning of a major sculpture for the campus. Robert C. Nordvall, associate dean of the college at the time and a steadfast advocate of the arts, was named chair of this committee, which included Alan Paulson, sculptor and professor of art; Ralph Cavaliere, professor of biology; and Samuel A. Schreckengaust Jr. '35. Art student Nicholas Micros '82 also participated in committee discussions and went on to serve as Puryear's assistant during the making of Sentinel.

Under Nordvall's direction, a funding application was submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which ultimately provided almost half of the commission for the work. Names of potential artists were submitted by committee members, who eventually selected Puryear. Commissioned in 1981, Sentinel was completed in the autumn of 1982 and officially dedicated on October 30 of that year. The piece, Puryear's first outdoor stone sculpture, is recognized today by scholars around the world as a major achievement within his highly honored career.

The selection of Puryear proved to be a particularly prescient move in art-historical terms. Over the past twenty years, Puryear has become one of the nation's most prestigious and widely admired sculptors. A Yale Art School graduate (M.F.A. 1971) with a command of five languages, Puryear, now sixty-two, was named Best Artist in Time magazine's 2001 special "America's Best" issue.

A rising contemporary artist

Puryear had already begun his rise to prominence in the art world when his name was submitted to the selection committee at Gettysburg College. But his reputation as a contemporary artist was solidified in 1989, when he became the first African-American artist to represent the United States in the prestigious São Paulo Bienal (Brazil) international exhibition of contemporary art. At São Paulo, Puryear earned the grand prize for his anthropomorphically suggestive and gracefully rendered abstract sculptures, such as Lever #4 (1989). That same year, Puryear was awarded a coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship - a $500,000, "no strings attached" stipend presented annually to a handful of highly talented individuals.

In 1991 The Art Institute of Chicago organized a major retrospective of Puryear's work, which traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His works are now owned by major art institutions around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

As a young man, Puryear studied painting and printmaking at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., then focused on sculpture while at Yale. Influenced by the biomorphic abstractions of artists such as Constantin Brancusi and Jean (Hans) Arp, Puryear developed his own artistic language grounded in organic forms and natural materials, primarily wood. His most telling artistic influences, however, came not from his formal art training, but from his exposure to two seemingly opposed, yet subtly intertwined, craft practices - the carpentry of the local craftsmen of West Africa, where he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer after college, and the more refined tradition of Scandinavian hand-woodworking and furniture building, a practice he immersed himself in while spending time in Sweden after his Peace Corps assignment had ended.

The training in the hand-manipulation of wood - in constructing, joining, and otherwise forming the material rather than carving it, was the precondition for Puryear's mature artworks, such as the evocative Sharp and Flat (1987). His best pieces show an uncanny ability to control materials in a simple yet painstaking manner, while also highlighting the constructive process itself. Puryear's enigmatic forms are testament to the traditions of skilled craftsmen, yet at the same time are points of departure for critical reflections on visual ideas.

Sentinel, at the time, was a departure for Puryear in terms of medium - stone and mortar as opposed to wood (although the piece was built using a set of five wooden molds within which the stones were placed). However, its status as, in Puryear's terms, "a built thing," (an object made by putting things together) rather than a carved object (whose final form depends upon the removal of material), made it a logical progression for the artist, whose aesthetic goals had always involved the process of construction "to make an organic whole." Sentinel's relation to an earlier work in wood, the similarly shaped and beautifully crafted Self (1978), suggests its relevance as a continuation or extrapolation of the artist's interest in "a shape that existed a priori in my mind," an organic form with no right angles, suggestive of a rock "worn by sand and weather."

An enduring legacy

The actual building of Sentinel took place during the month of September, beginning just as students returned to campus from the summer holiday. Postponed from the previous spring because of governmental delays in the funding, and consequently not included in the formal sesquicentennial celebration week that spring, construction of Sentinel was then purposely delayed until fall classes were underway.

According to art professor Alan Paulson, it was more in the spirit of the NEA Art in Public Places program to "have it happen in the context of a normal academic year" and to give the "public" - primarily the Gettysburg students, but also interested members of the community - easy access to the artist while enabling them to view the process of construction from start to finish. "We didn't want it to be an alien presence. When everyone would return from the summer away, there would be this sudden manifestation on campus," he said.

Unfortunately, in the more than twenty years since Sentinel was completed, institutional memory has faded. The general consciousness of the relevance of this campus treasure (both in terms of College history and American art history) has been diminished, and the majority of students, faculty, and staff today remain unaware of Sentinel's history.

Yet, even if those at Gettysburg do not always realize the importance of this "rock of rocks" on campus, it remains an important piece in Puryear's development as an artist. Variations on the Self/Sentinel form have continued in his work, with the artist often swelling the gently curving contours into a more cylindrical or rounded shape. Works such as Dumb Luck (1990), and Untitled (1994-95) allude to more specific or recognizable objects as multipart constructions. The sculpture also continues to have personal meaning for Puryear. In recent correspondence, he wrote, "Sentinel is one of my earliest sculptures for a public place and I treasure my memories of working on the campus during a beautiful Gettysburg autumn."

Still valued highly by its creator and by the art world in general, the work remains an enduring legacy for the College.