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Southwestern Acquires Unusual Sculpture

  • News Image
    Joey King purchased “Monstrance for a Grey Horse" from Seattle sculptor James Acord and donated it to Southwestern. (Photo by Lucas Adams)
  • News Image
    "Monstrance for a Grey Horse" is lowered into position on its base in July 2011.
  • News Image
    Seattle sculptor James Acord spent 10 years carving "Monstrance for a Grey Horse" out of a one-ton block of Vermont granite. 1993 Southwestern graduate Joey King purchased the piece from Acord and donated it to Southwestern. (Photo by Lucas Adams)

‘Monstrance for a Grey Horse’ explores our relationship with nuclear waste

A sculpture with a most unusual history has found a new home at Southwestern University.

The sculpture, titled “Monstrance for a Grey Horse,” was donated to the university by Joey King, a 1993 graduate who now serves as executive director of NITLE and vice president for innovation at Southwestern. King purchased the sculpture from Seattle sculptor James Acord in 2000.

Acord spent more than 10 years making the piece out of a one-ton block of Vermont granite. It consists of a granite carving of a horse’s skull on top of a five-foot trapezoidal granite column, all of which rests on a granite base.

Acord moved to Barre, Vermont, in 1979 not only to obtain some of the best granite in the world, but also to work with some of the world’s most renowned stone carvers. He carved the piece entirely by hand, foregoing the use of any power tools. A variety of textures on the sculpture’s surface display the range of stoneworking techniques in the Stonecutter’s Manual.

In interviews given while he was making the piece, Acord said it was designed to be an artistic examination of the meaning and impact on humans of nuclear technology. Acord said he carved the piece out of granite so that it would last at least 30,000 years – the same as the half-life of radioactive materials such as plutonium.

“Sculpture is an art of technology and we live in the Nuclear Age. And, therefore, it is sensible, logical, perhaps even inevitable that the art of sculpture will address nuclear technology,” he said in a 2002 interview with Nuclear News magazine.

Acord believed that pieces such as Monstrance could be placed around the perimeters of nuclear waste sites to warn future generations where radioactive material was stored.

Acord originally wanted to put a canister of live nuclear material in the sculpture.  

As part of his quest, he became the only private individual in the world to obtain a radioactive materials handling license. He moved the unfinished sculpture back to Washington State and set up a studio outside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington State in 1991 to have easier access to radioactive materials produced at Hanford.

In the end, Acord was unable to obtain the nuclear material he wanted for his sculpture. He resorted to figuring out a technique to separate the uranium from the uranium oxide glaze used on red Fiesta Ware pottery, which was made in the 1930s. The sculpture has an opening at the bottom of the column where a stainless steel canister containing crushed Fiesta Ware – symbolic of real nuclear material – can be placed.

Acord called the sculpture “Monstrance” because in the Catholic Church (in which he was raised), the monstrance is the ornate vessel in which the Eucharist is placed from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. In his Monstrance, the Eucharist would be live nuclear material − the dubious “sacred substance” of our age.

King first heard of the piece from Seattle writer Fred Moody, who was working for King in 1999. Moody had become aware of the piece through a two-part series that ran in the New Yorker magazine in 1991.

“Monstrance…is that rare work of arts that captivates, immediately and forever, both the mind and the heart,” Moody wrote in his own piece about the sculpture which appeared in the Seattle Times magazine in 2001. “The first time you see it, you are utterly enchanted; and the more you study it, the more complex and complete and hypnotic grows its hold on you.”

King said he decided to purchase the piece because a lot of private collectors were interested in it and he thought it should be in a public collection. Although he officially donated the piece to Southwestern several years ago, it remained at Moody’s house in Seattle until after Acord’s death in January, after which time King said he felt comfortable moving it away from Seattle.  

Bob Mathis, associate vice president for facilities and campus services, drove the sculpture from Washington State to Texas in May and it was placed near the entrance to the Smith Library Center in July. A formal dedication ceremony for the piece will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend.

In addition to providing additional public art for Southwestern’s campus, the sculpture is expected to have academic use.

“We’re delighted with it,” said Paul Gaffney, dean of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts. “It will be a great teaching tool.”