By Jada Butler
After a 29-year lifespan, the HYMN public sculpture on the hill in front of the Chapel on the east side of campus is being restored.
Originally a street art response to a violent Howard Beach racial incident in 1986, the sculpture moved from its original location overlooking the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, NY, and found a home on the grounds of C.W. Post with partial funding from the African People’s Organization in 1987. In late October, the face from the HYMN went missing, a discovery made by a group of scavenger hunting students and some faculty. Only the plexiglass remained.
The sculpture was a collaboration between graffiti artist John Fekner, and intermedia artist Brian Albert. It is embedded in the ground, a sandwich of white plexiglass, a photo transfer sheet of Martin Luther King Jr.’s face, and a clear plexiglass on top, all lit from wiring underneath the face.
The piece can be viewed at night while passing the Chapel on University Drive. Due to its position, the sculpture does not receive much foot traffic or attention. After 29 years of peacefully resting on the hillside, the sculpture has been worn down by the elements.They [the artists] didn’t build it to last, they built it for immediate impact,” said Barbara Applegate, director of the Steinberg Museum of Art and leader of the restoration process. “So they are excited for the opportunity to make it last.”
In cooperation with Facilities Servic- es, Applegate plans to have the piece reinstalled before winter sets in and the ground freezes. Circulating around campus, among students, faculty, and administrators alike, were rumors and fingers pointing the blame: student vandalism, administrative intervention, fraternity organization, and more.
“I really can’t speak to that, I really have no idea,” Applegate said. Reportedly, the face was found a few days later by members of the Facilities department on the ground about 50 feet from the sculpture, undamaged. Applegate and Facilities Services staff believe the wind lifted the plexiglass and carried the photo transfer away. “The fact that nobody really damaged it, leads to that idea,” Applegate said.
Despite the expedient recovery, the face was not immediately returned to the sculpture, and for a few weeks, the rumors continued to spread.
“I heard from Barbara that students were upset it wasn’t restored,” Albert said. “It’s very hard, it seems, to get things done that are out of the norm.”
Prioritizing public arts is difficult, and Albert credits the progression of the restoration process to “whoever was being a pain in the butt” to the services.
“We are honored that the students are paying attention to it and want it to be in good condition,” Albert said. “It is quite a compliment,” he added.
Several attempts to restore the piece have taken place, but were postponed, once in October due to heavy rain, and again in November due to issues with the electrical wiring of the piece.
“We are working with [one of] the artist on some of the lighting,” said Bill Kirker, director of Facilities Services. “Once that is done we will schedule to replace it.”
Albert and Fekner have reconstructed the piece for permanence and to withstand the elements for years to come.
The Home Depot brand light bulbs are to be replaced with strips of waterproof LED lighting sandwiched between plastic, to last 25 to 50 years, and the white and clear plexiglass will be replaced with polycarbonate, a bulletproof plexiglass, and coated in nautical silicone to shield it from rainwater. Remaining is a safe power source to connect the sculpture to. “I want it to look like his [MLK’s] energy is emanating from the earth,” Albert said.
Fekner reminded viewers of the piece of its overall message. “With all the struggles going on, socially, racially, all the things within the nation—this is to promote the peace,” he said.
Continuing, “‘I have a dream,’ is still ongoing, and as artists we have to keep the spirit and thought of MLK moving.”