Sac State’s public art: A history lesson

This article was originally published on my Medium profile on Dec. 13, 2016. Featured photo by Michael Zhang.

There’s a room at a far end corner of the University Library Gallery at Sacramento State that not many people tend to take notice. Its door was painted white — so white that a blink of an eye can lead you to see its long, vertical rectangular frame and the wall blended as one.

Inside, high metal shelves storing folded chairs completely overtake three sides of the room while the remaining wall, facing the hustle and bustle of the University Union and The Store, serves as an office area.

And this is where Phil Hitchcock has been working for the past four decades.

When Hitchcock arrived at Sac State to join the art department in 1975, the campus was bare and bleak with nothing other than classroom buildings, students, staff, squirrels, trees and grass.

“Oh my god, there was nothing here before I came,” Hitchcock said. “But I chose Sac State because of the alumni — very productive, talented and well known around the country.”

Hitchcock is now a professor and lead director of the University Library Gallery, a position he took on since 2001. At Sac State, he is considered as one of the longest staying faculty in the art department.

Professor Phil Hitchcock stands in front of art piece in a previous exhibit inside the University Library Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Phil Hitchcock)

Professor Phil Hitchcock stands in front of art piece in a previous exhibit inside the University Library Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Phil Hitchcock)

In addition to his own major development projects around Sacramento like the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Meridian Plaza as well as being a special advisor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission during the 1980s, Hitchcock is also known at Sac State for being the first person to bring most of the outdoor sculptures and indoor paintings to the campus.

Hitchcock said he doesn’t even remember how many pieces of artwork he has gathered throughout his time at the university.

According to a comprehensive list from the art department, there are about 77 pieces and counting displayed across campus.

These pieces include an untitled painting by nationally known artist, muralist and former Sac State professor Esteban Villa hanging inside Serna Center and a tall lacquered steel sculpture titled “Daimaru XVI” by Michael Todd outside Shasta Hall.

The 70-something-year-old gallery director doesn’t even remember what the first piece he acquired. But for him, it doesn’t matter because what’s most important is his passion to show off works of alumni, faculty and staff to the community.

“The alumni and faculty that we have produced here at Sac State are right up there with the best of the universities in the country,” Hitchcock said.

Also, Hitchcock wasn’t the only person who worked to accumulate masterpieces of Sac State affiliated artists. During the earlier years, he worked alongside William Sullivan—Dean of the former School of Arts and Science (1984–1998) and the then newly formed College of the Arts and Letters (1998–2004)—to help bring the collection to its current status.

When choosing which piece to feature and if deserved of a spot of the campus real estate, aesthetic is the last thing Hitchcock looks for. Instead, he looks for connections and the artist’s prominence in the legacy of the university. After all, Sac State’s boisterous, welcoming crop of talented employees was the main reason he decided to stay on for this long.

“Phil (Hitchcock) has a great deal of respect for me as an artist and he has a great pair of eyes for contemporary work,” said Julia Couzens, former Sac State faculty member and current art writer for the Sacramento Bee, whose original work is being loaned to the university for the next five years.

According to Hitchcock, the majority of the sculptures and other artworks were gifted to the campus by the artists themselves or by the family of William H. Cook, a well-known local developer who passed away in June of 1993 who Hitchcock has worked with in the past.

And instead of giving backstories of how each piece came about and the reason why it was sculpted the way it looks, Hitchcock reflected back on the artists and their connection to Sac State, as well as how their presence and legacy on campus through their sculptures are so important.

Click the paint palette for more information on each location.

Outside Shasta Hall

“Daimaru XVI” by Michael Todd, 1982, lacquered steel sculpture (Photo by Michael Zhang)

Located on the outskirt of campus next to the gravel faculty parking lot in front of Residence Hall and Shasta Hall, this large lacquered steel sculpture (pictured above) was acquired by the university in the early 1980s as a gift from the artist himself, Michael Todd.

This sculpture is one of the few pieces in Todd’s “Daimaru XVI” series — a very similar piece can be found in front of a redeveloped building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.

According to Hitchcock, the large ring that encircles the other multi-shaped steel pieces reflects back to Todd’s famous works inspired by Zen concepts, calligraphy and the freedom of expression in California during the late 1960s.

Details of “Daimaru XVI” by Michael Todd (Photos by Michael Zhang, top, and Vu Chau, bottom)

During this era, Todd explored many ideas and experienced many shapes and materials that match his inspiration of the cosmos and composition in space.

Since then, the circle, which Todd referred to as “the enso,” began to prominently appear in Todd’s works over the course of his decades-long illustrious career.

Todd, one of the few virtuosos who had no prior connection to Sac State, was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1935.

After years of traveling the world before residing in Southern California to teach at UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Todd was chosen by Hitchcock to have a piece of his composition permanently installed at Sac State in 1982.

Next to Pho Saigon Bay, Amador Hall and the Library

“Arequipa” by William Wareham, aluminum sculpture (Photo by Michael Zhang)

This geometric, multidimensional aluminum sculpture by William Wareham was one of the many gifts from the city of Sacramento and the family of William H. Cook.

On campus, it is located in the middle of the grass lawn next to Saigon Bay restaurant and Amador Hall since the late ’80s —Hitchcock couldn’t recall the exact year from that decade but he did remember that it was brought onto campus a few year after its creator, artist Wareham (a well-known sculptor from the Bay Area), passed away.

Details of “Arequipa” by William Wareham (Photos by Michael Zhang)

Hitchcock said Wareham’s contemporary touches to his pieces add unique and fresh characteristics to a campus that owns a large variety of art styles.

In “Arequipa,” Wareham’s abstract, kinetic style came through via his use of the materials and how each mini-parts were assembled to give each viewer a different experience and perspective when looking at it.

Wareham’s repertoire is often regarded by many as loud and fearless.

The artist has once said in a statement that he had a small sign in his studio that says, “Do not be afraid!” —a reminder to himself to use his strong aesthetic to pursue the creative act with passion, dynamism, knowledge and intuition.

University Library Lobby

“Waiting” by Ruth Rippon, 2000, ceramic sculpture (Photo by Michael Zhang)

The University Library receives about 200,000 visits on a daily basis. That means this life-sized ceramic sculpture, entitled “Waiting” by Ruth Rippon, receives the exact same number of views.

Resting on a bench as people walk through the front automatic doors to get inside the Library lobby, the sculpture, Hitchcock said, is a perfect representation of the purpose of the building it’s being housed in—storing books and the act of reading those books.

The sculptor reflects back on Rippon’s years of creating works that many have considered as whimsical and humanizing because of the way she portrays realism so effortlessly, yet the details can still be so intricate.

Since 2000, Rippon’s piece has been the reason for many “What is that?” questions posed by thousands of passersby everyday. What they didn’t know is that Rippon was a Sac State alumnae who went on to spread her pragmatic creativity around Sacramento since the 1950s.

Some of Rippon’s legacy include the Creative Artists’ League—an organization that helps put spotlights on the many highly regarded artisans in Sacramento; “The Lollies,” two Waiting-like clay sculptures placed side-by-side in front of the Pavilions Shopping Center, and a bronzed “Lollie” at the entrance of the UC Davis Medical Center’s Ambulatory Care facility.

North Quad (Close by Sacramento Hall)

“Untitled” by Gerald Walburg, 1987, Corten steel sculpture (Photo by Michael Zhang)

Gerald Walburg’s most-recognized public art piece is the “Indo Arch” that extends across the top of the pedestrian pathway at 4th and K streets.

When installed in 1977, Walburg’s Islamic and Indian temples motif of “Indo Arch” was viewed by many Sacramentans as standard with just a few rusted cylindrical shapes that for some people may have resembled too much of a certain body part.

“Soft-Hearted” by Gerald Walburg, 1971, Corten steel sculpture (Photo by Michael Zhang)

This untitled Corten steel sculpture in the front lawn next to Sacramento Hall and Shasta Hall did not create as much controversy, or even any at all, when it was brought onto campus in 1987. Because of this, little information can be found regarding it, as well as Walburg’s other piece entitled “Soft-Hearted” placed outside Sequoia Hall lawn.

Even Hitchcock himself didn’t know much about it, but when it comes to Walburg, the gallery director said that he’s one of the most treasured figures in the city, regardless of controversies.

Outside the Harper Alumni Center

“Brazen” by Stephen Kaltenbach, 1988, faux iron sculpture (Photo by Vu Chau)

“I get inspired by the villains for this piece,” said Stephen Kaltenbach, the sculptor who created “Brazen,” a 6-foot-tall faux iron sculpture of a pair of legs cut off at knee-length that’s located outside the Harper Alumni Center facing College Town Drive.

Who’s the villain that inspired Kaltenbach to sculpt this large piece? He said that it could be either Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler or any other eccentric characters in world’s history.

Kaltenbach also said that a different, more obvious, interpretation viewers of the piece may have is what to refer to the type of footwear as. Is it a pair of boots of sandals? Are they an iron replica of a Roman warrior’s sandals?

Kaltenbach, who graduated from UC Davis in the early 1960s before becoming an art professor at Sac State from 1970 to 2005, said that they’re sandals, not boots.

Also, the piece is more about whether they’re boots or sandals, it is, according to Kaltenbach, a metaphorical representation of the juxtaposition of evil and good in both civilization and human experience.

Due to the constant changes in administration, budget cuts and the constraints in spaces around campus, Hitchcock said he decided to stop collecting more art works in around the year 2008.

Pieces displayed prior to this were stored in collections of university or University Library Gallery.

The university is still accepting donations from student, faculty and staff artists but for Hitchcock, he’s definitely thinking about scaling back since spaces are so limited these days.

“I don’t know if this can even continue,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t want to accept these (donations) anymore since there are no places to curate them or store them since I already filled up spaces that are available on campus to place them on permanent location.”

Three of the latest donors to brighten the campus art scene are from current faculty Branda Louie and Sarah Flohr —whose works can be seen inside the University Library.

Sarah Flohr’s painting hung inside the University Library (Photo by Michael Zhang)

Interestingly, Hitchcock said the proudest moments in his decades-spanning career at Sac State aren’t about these public pieces, but instead, his presence at the university should be known for taking the initiative to collect works from Wayne Thiebaud, one of the world’s most celebrated artists and a former teacher at UC Davis whose works in the ’60s had a strong connection to the Pop Art movement.

But ultimately, when he leaves, Hitchcock hopes that his legacy will live on and there will be some person out there who’s willing to pick up where he left off with the public art collection and finds a way to continue to introduce the 30,000 student-body and hundreds of other staff and faculty in all departments to the vibrant and ever-changing art scene at Sac State.

“You can’t always in your life wait for somebody to pay your bill and buy your dinners,” Hitchcock said. “You have to figure out how to buy your own dinners.”