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Asa comes home

Gregory Farrington, Lehigh president, eyes the Asa Packer statue.

Lehigh’s first leader—founder Asa Packer—has taken his rightful place in the university’s Leadership Plaza.

Situated in the corner of the lushly landscaped entrance to the university, the sculpture of the 19th century industrialist joins a life-sized portrait that hangs in the University Center as the only recognition of Lehigh’s founder on campus.

“We’re very pleased to have a permanent tribute to Packer, whose vision for an institution of higher education has endured for nearly a century and a half,” says Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh. “This generous gift from the Class of 2003 will provide a highly visible reminder of our purpose, which is to continue to develop great minds to confront the challenges of the future.”

The life-sized bronze statue is the result of a years-long process that began when the class officers from the Class of 2003 began to consider their lasting gift to the university.

A link to future generations

Inspired by Packer’s vision and leadership, the class officers felt that their efforts to fund the project would link them with Lehigh for generations to come, according to Kristen Actis-Grande ‘03, senior class gift chair.

Stacie Nussbaum ’03, a former teaching assistant to Lehigh University Art Galleries curator and art professor Ricardo Viera and class liaison for the project, also felt that a realistic portrait of the university’s founder would provide a welcome contrast to the more abstract pieces artfully positioned on the 1,600 acre campus, while also enhancing an already striking setting.

“So many of the buildings here—particularly the Alumni Memorial Building—are absolutely gorgeous,” says Nussbaum, now the education coordinator for the Main Line Art Center
in Haverford, Pa. “We know that our buildings often draw students here, and this only adds to that presence.”

Once the project was agreed upon, the next step was to find the appropriate artist to bring Packer to life. Viera’s gentle prodding led the class officers and university representatives to Karel Mikolas, a Czechoslovakian-born professional painter and sculptor.

“Karel was involved in my ‘Public Art, Public Decisions’ course, and I brought a group of students up to his studio,” Viera says. “He is an incredibly talented, classically trained sculptor whose work has earned him great acclaim throughout Europe. We also hosted an exhibition of his work here on campus in 2003, and I felt that he would be an ideal person for this project.”

As large as life

Students enjoy the beautiful setting of Leadership Plaza.

Now operating out of a 10,000-square-foot studio barn in Slatington, Pa., Mikolas began his efforts to capture the essence of his subject in bronze by studying old photographs and documents provided by the historical society in Packer’s hometown of Jim Thorpe, Pa.

“There were wonderful albums to look through,” says Mikolas, who brought 45 years experience as an artist to the project. “I found one photograph that was 100 years old and had a friend who is very handy with computers enlarge it so that I could see all the detail when I started building the figure with clay.”

Mikolas also learned that Packer often walked with a cane that was crafted from the vertebrae of a deer. That, too, was reproduced in clay, and later shipped off to Laran Bronzes, a fine arts foundry in Chester, Pa.

There, the life-sized figure was first subjected to a coating of wax, which was carefully peeled away and made into an impression that would eventually be filled with molten metal.

The next step was to take the raw metal figure and refine it.

“It looks very brutal when it first comes out of the cast,” Mikolas says. “It has to be welded, assembled, polished and finished, and it’s all done there. It is a very tedious, labor-intensive process.”

Mikolas finished the work by painting it in dark brown hues highlighted with amber.

The sculpture, which weighs close to 1,000 pounds, had to be carefully transported to Lehigh and hoisted into place outside the Alumni Memorial Building using an overhead crane.

The location was chosen by the Class of 2003 officers, who felt that the statue honoring Lehigh’s founder should be in a highly visible location on campus. It will be officially dedicated during the fall of 2008, when the class members have their first five-year reunion.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2005

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