Students weld on a sculpture project for the art incubator at UNI

Sculpting the Future of Public Art

The public plays an important role in building community. And the University of Northern Iowa Public Art Incubator is a unique program within the UNI Department of Art that is meeting this rising demand, serving as a conduit between communities and artists to create art for public spaces.

The incubator has been active since 2011, enlisting students to fabricate and erect large-scale public art pieces commissioned and paid for by artists throughout the country. The work it produces can be seen on campus, in downtown Cedar Falls and peppered throughout the Midwest and beyond. UNI-fabricated art is installed on both coasts and in the Bahamas.


Carrying the Torch

In 2014, the art incubator was commissioned to fabricate the iconic Olympic torch for that year’s Special Olympics National Games.

The project brought with it some design challenges. The producers of the opening ceremonies wanted the sculpture disassembled into six parts with the core values of the Special Olympics laser cut into them. The six parts would then be carried to the stage by athletes, celebrities and dignitaries and assembled into the torch.

In the end, the sculpture was 14 feet tall and eight feet in diameter. It was constructed with laser-cut aluminum, steel and polycarbonate, with LED lighting and pyrotechnics for the ceremony. It was erected over four weeks by art shop technician and instructor Dan Perry and two UNI students. It is now permanently installed in Newark outside the New Jersey Special Olympics offices.

The Olympic torch sculpture is lit at the 2014 Special Olympics

Sculpture being installed at the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy

9,000 Pounds of Steel

The largest sculpture the incubator ever produced was finished in the summer of 2017, but it wasn’t installed until August 2019.

The massive, 9,000 pound abstract sculpture of a mortar and pestle was commissioned by the University of Iowa to stand in front of the new College of Pharmacy building and designed by the artist team, Actual Size Artworks, which consists of University of Wisconsin-Madison sculpture professors Gail Simpson and Aristotle Georgiades.

Tasked to construct the sculpture were incubator faculty Perry and Tom Stancliffe, professor of art, along with a team of four students, who were at first daunted by the mountain of metal arriving at the shop.

“It was very overwhelming when the first shipment of metal came in,” said Abigail Hedley, a senior pursuing a BFA in art who has worked in the incubator since her sophomore year. “We knew what the end sculpture would look like, but when you see such a huge mass of metal that’s somehow supposed to end up like the model, your brain fries a little bit. Honestly, you feel a little bit of doubt whether or not you’re capable of doing it.”

But Hedley said that the students were reassured by the preparation and experience of Perry and Stancliffe, who spent six months planning, engineering and modeling the sculpture. Ultimately, it was broken down into 23 sections consisting of more than 160 laser cut parts that were assembled into the final piece.

The sculpture was assembled over 10 weeks in the summer of 2017. The days were filled with the type of problem solving posed by the unique challenge of bending large slabs of metal into specific shapes.

“There is no machine available that can magically do that for you, so it all comes down to levers, pulleys and screw clamps. And typically, every one you own,” Stancliffe said. “You apply lifting force here, pry this part over, clamp the other edge inward, have someone press all of their weight down there, and weld it before it all lets go. There is a lot of drama and adrenaline at times.”

“Honestly, you feel a little bit of doubt whether or not you’re capable of doing it.”

—Abigail Hedley

A hometown project

One of the main benefits of the art incubator is that it gives students skills they can apply in real-world situations.

For Hedley, working with the incubator gave her the skills and confidence to apply for her own public art commission in her hometown of Dubuque. She had to create and present a proposal to a city committee for a sculpture with a $10,000 budget, competing against her own peers. And she won the job.

“If I didn’t work at the incubator and I didn’t have these experiences, I would have never had the guts to apply for that Dubuque commission,” Hedley said.

“The skills I learned here made me feel like I could do this on my own.”

—Abigail Hedley

Hedley designed and created the piece based on the idea of home and how it feels to return. The finished sculpture, titled “Honey,” was seven-feet tall and made entirely out of stainless steel with fire-treated elements. It’s on display in Dubuque as part of the Iowa Byways Project.

Abigail Hedley's sculpture on display in Dubuque

The sculpture, "Collision"

Teaching the Next Generation of Artists

In 2015, the art incubator had the opportunity to bring their work into the middle school classroom.

UNI alumna and Waverly-Shell Rock teacher Chelsie Meyer, ‘07, had developed a curriculum where her students would learn about public art and then generate concepts and ideas for a permanent sculpture in their community.

The students presented their designs to the Waverly School and Public Art Committee, which selected a design by students Seth Abkemeier, Luke Tobin and Aubrey Hall. Their sculpture, “Collision,” was fabricated by two UNI students over three weeks. It is now displayed in Kohlmann Park in Waverly.

It is a project that Meyer, who now teaches in Iowa Falls, has continued.

“It is such a win-win project, where my students and UNI students both benefit from this collaboration,” Meyer said. “We are able to make trips to UNI for students to see the sculpture lab, use the plasma cutter and shape their own piece of metal, as well as giving feedback through 3D design software to become more of a part of the design process.”

Meyer developed the class with input from Stancliffe and Perry and said the experience for her students is “priceless.”

“I just fell in love with the idea of students being able to design sculptures that would shape their landscape,” Meyer said. “This is so empowering for students, who sometimes do not feel like they have a voice until they are an ‘adult,’ to know that their ideas are valuable.” UNI