LIMA — One Lima resident is circulating a petition calling for the removal of a sculpture at Lima schools.
According to Russell Hardin, the “Democracy” sculpture located in the courtyard outside of Lima Senior High School comes off as “not inclusive,” “militarized looking” and downright “creepy.”
The sculpture was erected in 1992 in honor of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, freedom of speech and free press. Ultimately, the Chinese government declared martial law and ended up storming Tiananmen Square killing thousands of protesters.
There is a plaque dedicating “Democracy,” however it offers no references or information on its origins. The plaque acknowledges sculptors David and Robert Lepo of Lepo Works, other community members involved and a rededication date when it was moved over when the new high school was built in 2006. Hardin pointed out the piece has also weathered quite a bit since being moved to its new home.
With no clear depiction of what it represents and the visual wear and tear, Hardin said instead of a piece honoring a time in history, it comes off as something from “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
“I’ve heard once before that it represents Tiananmen Square, but that was years ago. Who will know that it’s Tiananmen Square in 50 years?” said Hardin. “I think we need something more current and reflective of what the students want now. … I think it’s more of a monument to the Lepos than anything. I don’t think they’re in touch with the students today, so I wasn’t shocked when the young students in my neighborhood called it the creepy statue.”
Hardin dropped off a copy of the petition, which currently has 50 signatures, to the Lepos, but the two parties have not spoken directly about the sculpture, or talked at all, in years.
“A lot could go out to look at the sculpture and say something, but they should research and look into it to figure out what’s going on — the interpretation and the meaning behind it,” Dave Lepo said in regard to the petition. “You can’t go applying this stuff onto something that just isn’t … it’s still, to this day, a very positive piece, and it does have an iconic place in our community in that not a lot of places have a sculpture like that and what it’s all about.”
Lepo was involved in the project by former Lima Senior art director and teacher Mike Huffman after he was approached by a group of four students who were disturbed by the Tiananmen Square incident.
“We had a handful of students who, like everybody else in the summer of ‘89, were watching live feeds from the events in Beijing. They said it was terrible and wanted to do something,” Huffman said. “At least two of them were pretty strong art-education students, so they wanted to do a work of art and they wanted to do a sculpture — something that had some punch.
“During the conversation, we also decided we wanted something interactive, so that’s where the red fencing came from — the idea to move through barriers to get to something,” Huffman added. “It’s very symbolic.”
Once they get past the barriers, the triangular-shaped metal point represents individuals reaching toward freedom and justice.
Not only did the school reach out to the Lepos for their expertise, but the district, with the help of Huffman and teacher Virgil Mann, implemented an entire “Project Democracy” curriculum focused on the topics of those at the heart of the original protests.
“I’m as interested in the process as the product. If you ask the others involved, they’d tell you the same thing,” Huffman said. “The product is great but the learning and the education that came out of it, that’s the benchmark for us. … It became a school-wide effort piece across just about every discipline. We were bringing in people that had lost democracy from South Africa, from Chile, torture victims and refugees. It really was a big deal.”
Huffman said that the intent behind the Tiananmen Square protests is reflective of those we are still seeing in today’s headlines.
“To some effect, this is protest art. This is about a slaughter, a protest that went amuck and awry,” he said. “What we did with it, that energy, speaks to a lot of the issues that are under protest today. These were groups of 17-to-18-year-olds protesting in China. (Our students) could see it — it moved them. If they were 18 today, they’d be out in those streets right now. It’s those same kind of kids.”
Hardin supports the representation of the events in Tiananmen Square but said he would like to see something built in its place with a more clear message more representative of today’s audience.
“It’s message is unclear. My end goal is to be more inclusive, that’s all I want,” he said. “This statue was built on a time of uncertainty, like the times we’re in now, but unfortunately, it was built by rich white guys. I don’t think there’s too many rich students that go here now. I would like to see it replaced by an artist of color. Perhaps the students now would like to place their own artwork here. A POW/MIA would be appropriate, a peace garden, even just grass would look better. I hate to say it, but no one comes here. Even the students are afraid of it.”
Beth Jokinen with Lima schools’ communication department said the school has not been approached by Hardin regarding the sculpture, nor have they received any formal complaints from students about the sculpture.
Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.