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Library memorializes ‘Touchdown Jesus’ artist

Catherine Owers | Monday, September 30, 2013

Millard Sheets, the acclaimed artist who created the iconic “Word of Life” mural on the south-facing wall of Hesburgh Library, said he was inspired by the history of knowledge and learning, with Christ as the master teacher.
As part of the Hesburgh Libraries Lecture Series, curator of historical art Janet Blake presented “The Story Behind ‘Touchdown Jesus,’ Millard Sheets: An Artist’s Journey to the ‘Word of Life,'” on Friday in the William J. Carey Auditorium.
“To say that the mural is impressive in scale and powerful in design is an understatement,” Blake said. “It sums up the artists’ skill at creating arresting, representational imagery in abstract design.
“The idea for a mural came about as the architecture firm of Ellerbe & Co. in Minneapolis was designing the new library.
“Because [University President Emeritus] Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had expressed concerns the building might look like a grain silo without some kind of decorative element, their design concept included a mural on the south-facing wall,” Blake said. “Hesburgh thought this would be a great solution to the problem.”
Architect Thomas Ellerbe worked with Sheets previously and asked him to submit his name for consideration for the project. Out of 12 artists, Sheets was chosen, Blake said.
At that time, Miller was at the peak of his career as an artist of watercolors, murals, and architectural art, Blake said.
Blake said Sheets was born in California and attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he learned the basics of art.
“Learning the basic language of art became his own philosophy as a teacher: that an artist must learn the necessary skills before exploring style,” she said.
From an early time, Sheets’ work displayed an interest in people from other cultures, and this theme was reinforced by his extensive travels, Blake said.
“Shortly after completing his studies at Chouinard, he booked passage on a banana boat headed for New York,” Blake said. “The boat stopped at ports of call in Central and South America, and Sheets sketched constantly.”
By the age of 23, Sheets’ work had been displayed in an individual exhibition and “Los Angeles Times” art critic Arthur Miller praised his work, she said.
“[Miller] described the young artist as an unparalleled phenonmenon in the art world of southern California,” Blake said.
Blake said Hesburgh shared his thoughts on the theme of the mural with Sheets.
“Sheets came up with three ideas, and the second was approved,” Blake said. “In that design, he put Christ at the top, with his disciples, to show that he is the great teacher. The others scholars, beginning with the prophets of the Old Testament would begin at the bottom and zig-zag their way up the composition.”
Blake said there are nine groups of teachers in all, including figures from the Renaissance and the Age of Science and Exploration. She said the figures are types, not specific persons because the mural doesn’t use individual identifications.
The detailed logistics of constructing such a large mural were daunting, Blake said.
“The “Word of Life” mural was a departure for Sheets, who had been designing mosaics with small glass tesserae from Italy. Now he would be working with pieces of granite of varying styles and shapes,” Blake said.
Blake said Sheets had always worked with the philosophy that subject dictated style.
“For this project, the subject matter and the material dictated style, which would be abstract pieces assembled to create a representational image,” Blake said. “In essence, the mural is not a mosaic, it’s like a giant puzzle, comprised of 324 panels.”
Blake said Sheets worked hard to find the correct colors and shades of granite to use for the mural.
 Sheets wanted to find a piece of granite that looked like gold, but was told there was no such thing, Blake said.
“He’d just about given up when a package arrived. Inside was a small piece of gold granite, from of all places, Brazil,” she said. “It was from a quarry that hadn’t been worked in 25 years. After much persuasion and many weeks, Sheets was able to get them to quarry a block for him. He ended up with a sizeable block and was able to utilize it with great success.”