Student-designed sculpture ‘Tributary’ debuts in Sac State Welcome Center plaza
March 23, 2023
When the pandemic hit early in 2020, Sac State Art student Denise Benitez felt like the rug was pulled out from underneath her.
Her projects and classes suddenly were on hold. Her father spent 10 weeks in the ICU with COVID-19. That put a strain on her mother, who had battled illness most of her life and eventually passed away in February 2021.
So, when Benitez and her fellow students in fall 2020 were able to resume work on the large, public art installation they were preparing for the Sac State campus, the project became a lifeline.
“Working on this sculpture made me feel more grounded, because it felt like everything else around me was basically falling apart,” said Benitez, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in 2021. “It kept me focused, it gave me a sense of responsibility, it gave me a sense of positivity.”
Now, the piece she spent more than three years working on is finished. The 15-foot-tall sculpture at the front of campus now greets visitors and will serve as a testament to the artists’ work, skill, and perseverance.
The sculpture, titled Tributary, is in the plaza outside of the Sac State Welcome Center and was officially unveiled March 15.
The idea for a sculpture outside the Welcome Center came from Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Mills, who for years had watched students brave traffic to take photos next to the “California State University, Sacramento” signs near the busy J Street campus entrance.
“I kept thinking that we needed more monuments or statues to provide new options for students taking photos,” Mills said. “We were just building the new Welcome Center, and I thought that would be the perfect place for a new campus monument.”
Mills had been impressed with #Poppy, a metal, abstracted stegosaurus that students in Professor of Art Andrew Connelly’s public art course built and installed in a traffic circle just south of campus in 2018.
Something similar, Mills thought, could work for the Welcome Center. The Campus Facilities office included a space outside the new building for a sculpture and provided the necessary electrical and footing infrastructure.
“We have amazing students and faculty in our Art department,” Mills said. “I felt it was critical for the project to be from our students, for our students.”
Connelly and his students agreed to take on the challenge of designing and building the project.
“What an amazing opportunity for students to be able to, for decades to come, say, ‘We built that. I'm a part of the legacy of this institution,’ ” Connelly said. “To have this level of connection is truly empowering.”
In fall 2019, the class developed three project proposals for consideration. A panel of faculty and staff, including Mills and Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, chose Tributary.
“We began construction of the project in January the next year,” Connelly said. “And now we know what happened next.”
The pandemic postponed the project until fall 2020, when Connelly and the artists returned to the studio, taking precautions such as working outside, wearing face coverings, and utilizing social distancing as much as possible.
Ultimately, the sculpture took more than three years to complete, with several of the original students, including Benitez and others who had graduated in the interim, remaining with the team to the finish.
“What an amazing opportunity for students to be able to, for decades to come, say, ‘We built that. I'm a part of the legacy of this institution.' ” -- Andrew Connelly, Professor of Art
Additional student members of the project team included now-alumni April Arnold, Matthew Pugh, Orzala Mahshour, and Andrew Rosas, and current student Julie Crumb.
“In many meetings I've had, I had to explain that none of this has ever been done before, and there's no map,” Connelly said. “First of all, to build a large-scale public art sculpture with students. And also, the design of any particular sculpture, there's no blueprint for that other than the blueprints that we're creating for it.”
The sculpture’s name, Tributary, pays tribute to Sacramento State students, faculty, and staff while referencing the Sacramento River watershed, which is critical to the regional ecosystem.
Three ascending leaf-like forms – which draw inspiration from the California bay laurel tree –represent growth and maturation while honoring the Native Americans who first inhabited the land onwhich Sac State is located. Artist and alum Tam Halenske helped create a light show that, at night, illuminates the sculpture from within and elicits the rhythm of breath.
As they simultaneously created a 4-foot model and 15-foot molds, students learned skills such as welding, metalworking, fiberglass forming, and mold making.
Benitez, who works as a freelance visual artist, says she has benefited from what she learned working on Tributary.
“When I started working with my own projects more, with my own sculptures … this, alongside working on the Tributary project, I realized my work had now a certain sense of sophistication and finesse, and it was due to the skills I was learning on the (Tributary) project,” she said.
The sculpture’s unveiling was “a very humbling and proud moment,” Benitez said.
“For me personally, it represents a lot of the personal challenges I was experiencing in my life, and how Tributary was that safe haven for me,” she said. “I knew I was always going to come here, work on this, shut out the rest of the world and do something fun and learn.”
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