McPHERSON, KAN. – Those who are familiar with the life-like ceramic sculptures of McPherson College Art Professor Michaela Valli Groeblacher might not recognize the subject of her latest commissioned work but will most certainly recognize the strong woman character prevalent in much of her art. When completed, the new sculpture will be the centerpiece of a public garden in Lindsborg, Kansas.
The project, which began about two years ago, is a life-size sculpture of Alma Swenson, an early figure in the history of Lindsborg. She began the community’s long-standing tradition of performing Handel’s Messiah as a way to help Swedish immigrants learn English, and was instrumental in the growth of the community, according to Lindsborg Mayor Becky Anderson.
“I was invited by the mayor to work on this project, and when the mayor calls I figured I better do it,” Valli Groeblacher said. “I did not know who Alma Swenson was, and there are very few photos of her. I got to know her by reading a book written about her and doing research. She was a very strong, friendly, and giving person.”
Valli Groeblacher’s design depicts Swenson pouring out a pitcher to symbolize her giving nature and music from The Messiah decorates a scarf wrapped around her arms.
“A piece like this is for the community rather than for the artist,” Valli Groeblacher explained. “So it is important that it is uplifting and a piece that recognizes the importance of a person whose contributions go way beyond her own lifetime. I wanted people to see how strong of a woman she was.”
The sculpture will be placed in Swenson Park and is a fitting addition to the new garden that replaces a pond built on the foundation of where her house once stood. Creating the large, outdoor piece is challenging, Valli Groeblacher said. Because clay shrinks during firing, she needed to start the project much larger than what it will be when finished.
“I have never made a sculpture this big,” she said. “I want it to be life-size or about six feet tall so it has to start out being eight feet tall. That much clay is very wet and heavy. It’s probably three times more difficult than the other pieces that I make.”
Something that size needed to be made in two pieces to fit into a kiln, Valli Groeblacher explained. It will be fired once, then stained to have the appearance of bronze, and fired a second time. It is still drying in her studio, but once dried, it will be transported to Hays for the firing.
“There is a lot that can happen during transporting and firing,” Valli Groeblacher said. “Firing can be unpredictable, so I am cautious and say it’s not done yet.”
Groundbreaking for the garden was to take place in April; however, it was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Mayor Anderson said it is uncertain when the new garden and the sculpture will be unveiled to the public.
“It’s been my dream for a long time to have something in our community to recognize Alma Swenson,” she said. “Michaela’s sculpture is amazing. One hundred years from now I want people to know who Alma Swenson was and why we cared.”