Centenary Passage

Centenary Passage - a sculpture by Peter Mitten 

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PLNU commissions well-known San Diego artist Peter Mitten to create a marker commemorating Centennial

by Dean Nelson 

On the cliffs just below the university, water washes onto the shore, then pulls back thousands of times per day. From above the surface, the water is too deep and dark to see what is below. But each wave that draws back reveals multiple levels of life. Mystery is covered and exposed every few seconds.

That is what it is like to gaze on the newly-installed sculpture, called Centenary Passage, on the south lawn of Cooper Music Center. From left to right, the sculpture is both smooth and rough, like waves, exposing something just below the surface. Where it looks as if the bronze is pulling back, life is revealed. PLNU’s life. Words from Phineas Bresee, the university’s founder - spoken 100 years ago. And words from Isaiah, spoken thousands of years ago. 

Peter Mitten, the sculptor, focused on Isaiah 62:10, as he considered what form his work should take. The verse is from the chapter Bresee believed was the foundation for beginning this institution: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.” 

What Mitten created was a 10-foot-high passage made of bronze, supported by granite. The bronze reveals the words from this verse in Hebrew, English, Spanish and in computer language, representing the same message of our past, present and future. One can literally pass through this gate and experience the entirety of the institution. Because the passage is narrow, one who passes through must turn and confront the images of our past as he or she enters the future. 

“Even if you just look through the passage, you can use it as a window to see the campus differently or see a person differently,” Mitten said. 

He was selected for this Centennial Celebration work last year by a committee charged with providing an artistic expression of the university’s legacy and destiny. The art department recommended Mitten because he had taught art at PLNU from 1976 to 1980, then again in the mid-80s, and because of the quality of the public art he has created in California, Washington, Texas and Massachusetts. He has been a visiting artist at nine universities in the U.S. 

“He gave us a proposal, then a mock up,” said Eugene Harris, a professor in the art department and a member of the committee. “His ideas presented us with a different way of thinking. Rather than something realistic, it invited people to react to the shape and materials. It challenged us.” 

Karen Sangren, also a professor in the art department and a member of the committee, said the piece does exactly what abstract art should do. 

“Rather than have all of our observations and questions answered, he is asking us to think,” she said. “Europe is full of public art that connects the area’s history symbolically. This does the same thing. By encountering this symbolic piece, one encounters our history and future.” 

The bronze was cast in several pieces, coming together into the gateway, connected to a one-ton piece of granite. 

“I had wanted to put stone in the piece for several reasons - foremost the metaphorical references to Christ,” Mitten said. “Also, there was a reference to stone in the prophet’s scriptural passage. It has been quite an experience, as all sculptural installations seem to be, coordinating with engineers, contractors, grounds crews, and crane operators, as well as the suppliers of materials to make it all come together.” 

How the viewer sees it will be largely up to the viewer, he said. 

“It’s not literal, except for the scripture text,” he said. “It doesn’t tell a story or give an illustration. It’s not a bank of video monitors. It’s a marker. It has layers of meaning. It involves physical motion. You walk through it. It invites individual experience.” 

Mitten said he was grateful for the way the university openly discussed its goals for the art, responded to his ideas and gave him freedom to take risks with the work.  

“President Brower really impressed me in this process,” he said. “He told me that after all the interest and reaction to my ideas had occurred, I should remember that I was the artist, and that they trusted me. That said a lot about this institution, because risk is part of the reality. We live in an abstract world.”  

But abstract forms reveal other forms just below the surface. They can reveal life. History. Future. Mystery.  

“I like my work to point to what is bigger than ourselves,” Mitten said. “Why make things that don’t point to our life of faith?” 

 

Dean Nelson is professor of journalism at PLNU.