Arts and Culture

Sculptor to design Holocaust memorial for University

Professor Lawrence Argent, a public art luminary widely known for his Blue Bear sculpture at the Colorado Convention Center, has been selected to design a Holocaust memorial, learning and action center at the University of Denver.

The project is to be constructed between Penrose Library and Margery Reed Hall on East Evans Avenue near the Buchtel Tower, to which the memorial will be linked, Argent says.

“My piece is not just the creation of an object but of a space and a place among an environment that includes existing architecture and landscaping,” he says.

The Holocaust social action space is part of a $3.5 million fundraising campaign by the Holocaust Awareness Institute at DU’s Center for Judaic Studies. The drive is aimed at building the memorial and endowing a professorship of Holocaust Studies to set up learning and remembrance programs. A little over $1 million has been raised so far.

The contract with Argent requires him to submit a preliminary design on or before June 20 and a final design by Aug. 21. If University officials approve Argent’s vision, work on the $750,000 project could begin as soon as fall, but possibly much later.

“Finding a spiritual source, inspiration and understanding is the research basis for capturing what I want,” Argent says. “I want to create something that’s timeless.”

Argent began his work earlier this year with a 19-day trek to artistic and historic sites in Tel-Aviv, Berlin, Auschwitz and Krakow, Poland.

“It was an amazing trip; very insightful,” he says. “I felt spiritual connection to these places.”

Argent says that prior to the trip his personal exposure to World War II was limited to family stories of his mother’s home in England being bombed by a V-2 rocket. The trip was to help harden his “naïve knowledge” into an enriched understanding of what he needs to know to complete the project.

“If [the design is] successful, it will in a magical way tell of those events we need to remember,” he says.

Argent’s artistic eye has been employed in a multitude of public art projects over the years, including Virere, 20-foot blades of grass in the South Broadway median in Englewood; Whispers, concrete lips on stilts outside the Ritchie Center; Ghost Trolley, a translucent lighted sculpture on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora and most recently, Verdant Meadow, an ice sculpture collaboration for the Town of Vail.

But none of these quite equates to the challenge Argent faces in designing the Holocaust space, which involves a reinvented concept of what a Holocaust memorial has traditionally been.

Sarah Pessin, Hecht Chair in Judaic Studies, says the memorial is primarily to be a site for learning and social action. It’s also a place to honor Jews and others “who died at the hands of hate.”

That honoring will be achieved through Holocaust education, reflection on other atrocities that have afflicted the world in other places at other times, interfaith dialogue and social consciousness-raising.

The memorial is to use “the lessons of Holocaust to awaken and inspire us to learn more about one another and build relationships in all sorts of ways,” she says.

The memorial must also be a springboard to action, Pessin says. It’s to be a place where participants can commit to Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of “repairing the world,” then go out and fix things.

Pessin says the memorial has to fulfill “all three categories of things equally” — commemorate the Holocaust, stimulate interfaith and multicultural discourse and dialogue, and spur activism.

“It’s a different approach than is usually taken, to try to make something that’s both Jewish and universal,” she says.

Underscoring the project’s uniqueness are plans to integrate the center with the Buchtel Tower, the surviving piece of the Buchtel Chapel, which was built in 1910 and nearly destroyed by a fire in 1983.

Tying the chapel and its rich DU history with the memorial would be “a wonderful recapturing of a sacred place,” Pessin says.

Figuring out how to do that is Argent’s job, about which he feels “inspired” and “excited,” yet “reticent.”

“It’s definitely a long road,” he says. “Like most of my art, it’s about questioning the things we don’t know (that) we don’t know.”

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