Community members from around the area are lending their hands for a sculpture project that will commemorate more than a lifetime of memories at the old Dakota Hospital building in Vermillion.
Chris Meyer, an associate professor of sculpture at USD, has been commissioned by the Dakota Hospital Foundation and Sanford Vermillion Medical Center to build an art piece that will honor the services Dakota Hospital provided the community for more than 80 years.
The bronze sculpture, called “Assembly,” is in the early stages of development, and will incorporate more than 150 hands from people who’ve been impacted by Dakota Hospital to form what resembles a circular infinity symbol.
“My idea in terms of representing the concept was to use hands as a symbol of the community. The hands are a symbol for humanity,” Meyer said. “There’s not much more about us that is so human without being so individual. Individual hands are individual hands, but the nuances of fingerprints (make us different).”
The sculpture, which will stand nearly 8-feet tall and 4-feet wide, is expected to be complete by the spring of 2017.
Meyer and his team of former and current USD art students have been working with the Dakota Hospital Foundation to complete the tedious process of making the hand casts that will eventually make up “Assembly.”
“I’m trying to get a whole variety of people throughout the community – from the very elderly to young people,” he said.
The hand molding process begins with the artist covering the person’s outstretched hand in a rubber, silicon-based mold. The artist uses a spatula-looking tool to make sure the rubber is spread evenly before it hardens. Overall, the whole process takes about an hour to complete.
“(The mold) captures every single detail – every hair follicle, every pore, everything, all the wrinkles,” Meyer said. “There’s going to be a variety of textures and histories in this sculpture.”
Junior Beckett Smith is one art student working with Meyer on the project. He said being part of this project has given him a greater appreciation for the kind of impact art can have on people.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into … but it’s nice to be part of a community project and have an impact for a very, very long time,” Smith said.
Smith said during the time he’s spent making these molds, he’s had the chance to hear a number of stories from participants about the past and the hospital itself.
“It brings back a lot of memories (from the participants),” Smith said. “It’s so personal for everybody. It’s a piece of them, it’s a piece of history.”
Meyer wanted to capture these stories through his sculpture, but said he was also motivated to reach out to USD Media & Journalism Instructor Todd Mechling to create some sort of documentary to take the project one step further.
“Part of the idea of this … is that they would have stories of their experiences with the hospital,” Meyer said. “(A documentary) was a way to tie the whole thing together. It’s quite a large project dealing with this many members of the community.”
Mechling, who has had many years of experience with video production, said he was excited to be brought onto the project. He has also put together a team of students to help him with the documentary, giving them “real world experience.”
“It was a good idea because it helped the documentary from it just being the artist and his making of the sculpture,” Mechling said. “It brought in the entire community. We’ve gotten a lot of good, insightful stories of people and things that happened at Dakota Hospital.”
The documentary will be under five minutes and is planned to play in a kiosk inside the new hospital addition where Dakota Hospital once stood.
The three-story brick building known as Dakota Hospital was demolished in January. The new addition to Sanford Vermillion will contain more modern clinical and medical facilities and is expected to be complete by the fall of 2017.
A final session of making hand casts and collecting interviews is set for April 9 at Sanford Vermillion. Meyer is hopeful he will have enough hands after that to move onto the next phase of the project, which involves assembling a life-size pattern of the sculpture.
The pattern will be used by Bronze Age Art Casting in Sioux Falls to cast the actual sculpture in bronze.
Mary Merrigan, public relations officer for Sanford Vermillion, said Dakota Hospital played a significant role in the community.
“We just knew, with all the history, we wanted to do something of significance,” she said.
Meyer said sculptures capture a certain physicality and realness that can convey a powerful meaning.
“Most people probably don’t visit a gallery or museum very often, but everyone walks outside,” Meyer said. “Public art has the ability to be seen by more people, and it can really have an impact. In terms of this project, the fact it is bringing so many community members together is important.”