Bertoia at Huntington & Marshall 2020

The backstory of the Marshall University fountain and the current Huntington exhibition

Bronze monumental fountain at Marshall University (thanks to Dana Prichard)

Bronze monumental fountain at Marshall University (thanks to Dana Prichard)

1970 saw one of the most tragic airplane accidents in university history. The entire Marshall University football team, along with coaches and staff, was killed when their aircraft crashed returning home from an away game. On November 14, seventy-five players and supporters perished. The entire town of Huntington mourned.

To commemorate the sad event, a huge Bertoia sculpture was erected in Marshall University's main plaza. Every year since that fall, a crowd gathers in November when the water is turned off for the winter, and then again turned on in the spring.

The 2017 memorial event at Marshall University (thanks to WSAZ TV)

2017 memorial event

This year, along with the ceremony, Huntington Museum of Art is hosting a Bertoia exhibition titled Rising, Renewing, Reaching: Harry Bertoia and the Marshall University Memorial Fountain, to be on view in HMA’s Switzer Gallery from Sept. 19 through Jan. 3, 2021.  This 50-year anniversary is a meaningful event for Huntington. Celia Bertoia, the artist's daughter, will attend the ceremony and also give a presentation, either online or live (to be determined). Monotypes, jewelry, furniture and tonals will be viewable. Huntington Bertoia Show.

Bertoia was not an easy choice!

Would he make a buffalo?

Who is this Bertoia guy?

Fountain with water turned on.

Fountain with water on.

The architect of the Student Center, Keith Dean, suggested Harry Bertoia as a candidate for the memorial sculpture. Other artists were interviewed as well. The appointed committee, pondering on how best to honor their departed loved ones, discussed a football player or a buffalo (their mascot being the Thundering Herd).

When Bertoia arrived to meet with the group, they asked him if he might do a buffalo or quarterback? Harry pulled out his sketches of an abstract textured bronze piece, and some in the group were taken aback. Harry responded with, "If you wish to have a buffalo, I would at this moment like to be left out of this consideration because that is not what I shall ever do!"

An emotional debate ensued, with part of the group wondering if some abstract form could properly represent their treasured football team. Someone asked if such a shape was a tribute to "flower children" or football players? They wondered what this "surrealist" stuff was anyway? Who was this Bertoia guy?

Some in the group were more forward thinking. Several businessmen argued for progress and pushing the envelope. Finally, the vote went in favor of Bertoia, 5 to 4.

When the sculpture arrived and was erected, most were pleased. Those who questioned the abstract form were soon outnumbered. The fountain sculpture has become a beloved symbol of the university. It is a popular gathering spot.

Would the artist make a buffalo?

Bronze buffalo

Aren't we lucky that Bertoia's idea was voted in?!


The abstract form weighs over 6500 pounds and stands 13' tall. It is made with copper tubing - the same as what you'll find in residential plumbing - and bronze welding rods. The construction took over nine months of work, welding one curved copper tube at a time. Each tube was heated, then bent to the proper shape, then welded onto the existing form. It was tedious work, but with a substantial result.

Construction of copper pipes

Construction of pipes

The warm summer got even hotter at the Bally, Pennsylvania, shop as the crew welded outside in the sun. Such large pieces did not fit inside the shop, so they worked in the back lot. Straw hats helped shade them.

Summertime construction outside.

Summertime welding was hot.

Harry Bertoia had a unique capacity to envision the finished product, work backwards to plan it all out, and then find the means by which to make it. Sometimes it meant he had to invent new methods, such as this copper pipe construction. He was truly a creative genius!

Once the sculpture was delivered via flatbed truck, the former arguments were set aside and the townspeople adopted the fountain as their own. Visit Huntington Museum and Marshall University if you can!

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