A bronze sculpture of a person is seen from the waist up. A building is in the background.

New sculpture of Mathias Alten on GVSU campus to include augmented reality feature

A recently installed bronze sculpture of Mathias Alten on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus both commemorates the artist and will offer an opportunity for viewers to learn more through augmented reality about the person known as the Dean of Michigan painters.

The new installation is also serving as GVSU's venue for this year's ArtPrize, which runs September 14 through October 1.

The piece by Grand Rapids-based sculptor J Brett Grill, roughly 500 pounds and slightly larger than lifesize, stands on the Mount Vernon pedestrian mall near the Seidman College of Business. One key reason for choosing that location was because of the proximity to the George and Barbara Gordon Galleries at the DeVos Center, said Nathan Kemler, GVSU director of Galleries and Collections.

A person unwraps a sculpture on a pedestal.
A person unwraps a bronze sculpture of a person, revealing the head and shoulders.
Artist J Brett Grill unwraps the bronze sculpture of Mathias Alten that he created. The sculpture was recently installed.

That means folks can make a quick trip across Fulton Street to see the galleries, whether they are inspired by the sculpture itself or by the digital animation that will be available in the coming weeks. The augmented reality experience will be available via the mobile app Art at GVSU, where the piece will come to life and users will hear a voice depicting Alten introduce the galleries.

Those accessing the digital augmentation will also see the sculpture's head and face move and hear the voice speaking in first person, providing explanations of Alten and what his life entailed, Kemler said.

Kemler said he hopes the sculpture will increase awareness about this resource about Alten at GVSU — the world's largest public collection of the artists’ works. GVSU’s collection includes more than 130 paintings, scholarship and archival records such as photos, and the entire artist Catalogue Raisonné. That breadth of information helps people understand Alten, who lived from 1871 to 1938, more fully.

"What comes through when you have that level and depth of information is that you get to see the individual in a much more complete way," Kemler said. "You understand them as a person who lived in the area where I am also living, who also went through a pandemic, who also saw a rise in technology and all of the things around them changing. How did they respond to changes then? How am I responding to changes now?

"A lot of these are not new challenges. These are things humanity has been asking about and engaging with for a long time."

A bronze sculpture of a person is seen from the waist up with greenery around it.

The founder and manager of the Alten Catalogue Raisonné also helped set in motion the sculpture project several years ago, Kemler said. The late James Straub thought a sculpture in Grand Rapids would commemorate the artist's impact on the region, with GVSU an ideal location, given the university's robust Alten collection.

Straub approached Alten's granddaughter, Anita Gilleo, with the idea, which she supported. Eventually the project came to fruition with her funding support, Kemler said. Sadly, Gilleo passed away just weeks before the installation.

Kemler said Gilleo was also a central proponent and initial funder of the augmented reality feature as a way to increase engagement with the sculpture. Though Gilleo didn't access such media herself, Kemler said, she was curious about the possibilities that augmented reality presented for expanding the understanding of Alten. 

"Anita worked tirelessly throughout her entire life to preserve and tell the story about her grandfather," said Kemler, adding that she had a keen eye for ways to enhance Alten collections, such as gifting to GVSU some Lake Michigan beach paintings when she recognized the university didn't have those.

A person works with the base of a bronze sculpture. A foot is visible.
Two people move a wrapped bronze sculpture onto an elevated base. The sculpture's leg is visible.
The base of a bronze sculpture has the words M Alten
A detail image of a bronze sculpture shows a hand holding a piece of art equipment.

In addition, Gilleo selected the historical photo of Alten that the sculpture was based upon, said Grill, the sculptor who created the piece.

"I was delighted to be brought in to work on the sculpture of Mathias Alten. I’m always energized by projects that memorialize cultural heroes," Grill said. "In our sculpture the wind tugs at Alten’s garments as he stares off into the horizon. He is depicted at the moment of inspiration, turning toward the Grand River, which he is known to have painted."

Alten was also known to be a frequent user of the Interurban, an electric railway. The last remnants of the tracks in West Michigan are commemorated in an informational exhibit that is near the new Alten sculpture; plans call for incorporating at a later time an augmented reality experience tied to the railway, Kemler said.

"A lot of his landscape paintings in Michigan can be traced to that rail line," Kemler said.

A bronze sculpture of a person is seen from the back. The sculpture has a bag hanging from one shoulder. Artist equipment is seen in the other hand.

GVSU students and faculty members who have ArtPrize entries

Caroline Bell, art education major, "Stripped Autonomous Rights (Stripped)" at Harmony Brewing Company

Zachary Trebellas, visiting professor in the Visual and Media Arts Department, along with artist Amber Bledsoe, "A Swan Song to the Kensington School Building" at SILVA

Mahsa Alafar, visiting professor of photography and Michael Powell, a part-time faculty member in studio art - foundations, "Reclaiming the 'Orient' – Gereh-Chini" at SILVA


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