UR Here: Creating community through communal creation of meaning

Photo by Zak Neumann

“Meet me by the Buddha statue.” If you’re from the Iowa City area, quite a lot of you would know our rendezvous point immediately if I said this to you. “Meet me by the Brain.” If you’re a University of Iowa student and I said this to you, you’d know where to go.

The Buddha and the Brain are two relatively new public sculptures in the Iowa City community, now well-known enough that they’ve become landmarks with even a tradition or two attached to them. Funny thing is, the Buddha and the Brain are actually not those things at all — and yet they are.

The Buddha, if you don’t know, is a 20-foot-tall, 110-ton statue completed in 2015. It sits on a small hilltop adjacent to Scott Boulevard north of Rochester Avenue on land belonging to Harvest Preserve, a nature preserve and spiritual sanctuary founded by Doug Paul. The sculptors are Paul himself and J. B. Barnhouse of Iowa City, and the Indiana limestone of which it is made originates from the same quarry that provided the Washington Monument stone. The statue is called Man on a Bench. It’s not surprising, though, that people would dub it a Buddha — I confess we did so in my own family as the colossus rose from the ground. The figure is of a bald, heavyset man, eyes closed with his hands on his knees, one with an upturned palm. It would not be untoward to think the figure was meditating.

Ironically, the fat Buddha or laughing Buddha popular in Western culture is often mistakenly assumed to be Siddhārtha Gautama, the Indian founder of Buddhism, who is generally depicted as neither fat nor laughing. The stereotypical Buddha is actually the Chinese folkloric Budai, which means cloth sack (for the bag this figure traditionally carries). Budai is a symbol of contentment and abundance, though he is often seen as the incarnation of a future Buddha.

Although I’m calling Man on a Bench public art, it is on private land and was privately constructed. But its prominently visible location makes clear a public intent. The Brain, installed in 2011 on the UI campus, sits squarely on public land on the T. Anne Cleary Walkway. It was funded by Iowa’s public Art in State Buildings program (which our state legislature now intends to eliminate because, as some Republicans have said, the art is “ridiculous”). Like Man on a Bench, it is a massive structure, a 19-ton granite boulder. The piece is actually titled Ridge and Furrow, and artist Peter Randall-Page, a well-known British sculptor, intended a natural design with a continuous ridge around the rock’s entire surface created by carved furrows.

It’s not surprising that the complex, winding ridge and its complementary furrows on an oblong boulder are interpreted to be a brain and its fissures, especially on a higher education campus. The original intent was to complement the natural elements of the walkway — which the sculpture does — but the larger educational purpose of its university home has also been seamlessly layered into its meaning through popular imagination. In Ridge and Furrow’s short life on campus so far, it has attracted its own tradition, with students rubbing the Brain for good luck on their way to exams.

Having been trained as a literary scholar in my dim past and appreciating the eternal battle between authorial intent, formalistic intrinsic meaning and reader response, I accept the people’s stories of these local icons of public art and the artists’ original intent. The relationships among creator, creation and audience are always complex. Once an artist or writer releases a work into the world, it becomes what people wish to make of it. And that’s perfectly fine — as we create common meaning, around public art especially, we create community.

Paul himself has said, “The moment a viewer makes a connection with a sculpture, a personal story will emerge, and every story will be different. Man on a Bench allows you complete freedom to decide whether or not the piece means anything to you.” For many, that meaning is the Buddha, whether as a quick identifier or something more deeply significant as the serene man watches over the east side of Iowa City.

Those many different individual stories, though, are collectively threads in the tapestry of community. In her classic essay “Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination,” Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko offers an eloquent explanation of storytelling, community and culture. For Silko, the ancient Pueblo people are “part of an ancient continuous story composed of innumerable bundles of other stories.” The “remembering and retelling” of the culture’s stories was a “communal process,” resulting in a “communal truth, not an absolute truth. For them this truth lived somewhere within the web of differing versions, disputes over minor points, outright contradictions tangling with old feuds and village rivalries.”

Similarly, public art serves its best purpose by entering into the communal storytelling stream. The artist’s idea and intent are always there. But as more and more people see, think about, relate to and talk about a community artwork, new ideas, fresh perspectives and novel interpretations arise and accumulate, forming a web of stories that become a communal truth. The ridges and furrows that reflect the Iowa agricultural landscape, the granite that replicates a walkway in honor of a fallen university community member, the twenty-ton brain that will help you ace your exam, the anonymous big man sitting serenely on a hill, the meditating ascetic bringing harmony to a diverse community, the audacious stone monument rising out of an Iowa farm field — these are all truths that, bundled together, have become essential parts of our community story. That is the essence — and the essentialness — of public art.

Thomas Dean focused more on New Historicism in graduate school than New Criticism or reader response, but that’s another story. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 220.

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