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Woodland Counterpoint detail

Woodland Counterpoint

Robert J. Gehrke
25" x 14' x 5"

Woodland Counterpoint

Woodland Counterpoint was commissioned in 1984 for Davies Center, which occupies a site that was once the meeting grounds of the Dakota and Ojibwe. Designed and sand-cast by Robert J. Gehrke, the sculpture incorporates five Woodland Indian designs with species of woodland trees native to Wisconsin. Commissioned through the Wisconsin Arts Board’s Percent for Art Program, the sculpture was installed in December 1984 and dedicated February 26, 1985.

The bronze wall relief is made up of nine separately cast sections, which alternate intricately textured forest images with geometric designs selected from works by the major tribes of Wisconsin — Menominee, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe and Oneida. The highly polished tribal designs border four large sculptural collages of leaves and bark, and echo many of the natural patterns found in the larger panels.

Gehrke said that the relief “exhibits a spirituality that is accessible to anyone. You don’t have to be privy to any specific knowledge to tap into those geometric designs and the shape of the forest.” He attributes the success of Woodland Counterpoint to the character and richness of the tribal designs.

The artist was selected unanimously from a field of 75 applicants in the open national competition for the commission. The selection committee, advisory to Percent for Art Program coordinator Regina Flanagan, was made up of Johannes Dahle, director of University Centers; Charles Campbell, professor and chair of the department of art; George Hagale, professor of sculpture; Robert Leverich, an architect with Ayres Associates; and art professional Ruth Friedman.

Woodland Counterpoint selection committee


Seated: Ruth Friedman, Robert Gehrke, Regina Flanagan
Standing: George Hagale, Charles Campbell, Johannes Dahle, Robert Leverich

Gehrke was chosen on the basis of the durability of the materials to be used and the concept of his proposal. The committee particularly wanted a work that would emphasize a Native American theme; Gehrke’s sculpture incorporates Woodland tribal designs with indigenous trees after which many rooms in the original and the present Davies Center are named. Davies Center occupies a site that was once the historic meeting grounds of the Dakota and Ojibwe people, who made peace at the Little Niagara Creek in the 1850s, after a bitter and brutal war that spanned 150 years. Davies Center meeting spaces are named to honor the Woodland Nations who used the Council Oak tree and its surroundings as a shelter and gathering place for generations.

Gehrke began each panel by constructing a pattern — a three-dimensional model built of wax, clay and wood — using impressions of leaves and other natural materials. Each of the four large panels required more than 500 hours of pattern work.

Silica sand, mulled together with resin, was packed around the finished pattern. After a rigid shell had formed, Gehrke removed the pattern and reassembled the sand mold. Each large pattern required a complex seven-piece mold weighing more than 750 pounds. Molten manganese bronze was poured into the sand mold; when it cooled, the casting was shaken loose and cut away from the gating. The processes of grinding, machining, cleaning, buffing and coloring followed. Gehrke constructed the patterns and molds in his Eau Claire shop. He cast much of the 850-pound sculpture in Haas Fine Arts Center.

Woodland Counterpoint was reinstalled in W. R. Davies Student Center in July 2012.
A preliminary study — an oak-framed bronze relief contrasting a Ho-Chunk design with impressions of white oak leaves and bark — hangs in the Ho-Chunk Room of Davies Center.