A new sculpture by Studio Art alumnus Richard Tanner, unveiled at Michigan State University’s campus last fall, invites viewers to reflect on what it means to rise from the ashes and create new beginnings.
Called The Phoenix and located outside MSU’s Intramural East building, the sculpture was two years in the making with the planning stages beginning in fall 2019. The original design was based on athletics, and over the course of its creation, its message of rising from the ashes gained an entirely new meaning. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on and people around the world suffered the loss of loved ones, The Phoenix transformed into a beacon of hope.
“It all started from the idea of sports, but it turned out to be a more universal thing, because it includes all of us, with the pandemic and the lockdowns and the deaths,” Tanner said. “I really hope that the sculpture gives people hope.”
For Tanner, this beacon of hope became personal when he faced the loss of his mother while creating the sculpture.
“It all started from the idea of sports, but it turned out to be a more universal thing, because it includes all of us, with the pandemic and the lockdowns and the deaths. I really hope that the sculpture gives people hope.”
“My mother was so excited about this whole thing, and I had to rise from those ashes,” he said. “This has been a difficult time for all of us, and we can rise above it. This is something that we’re all having to go through, and it’s a part of life.”
If anyone knows how to rise from the ashes, it is certainly Tanner. Before pursing his MFA at MSU’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design and building a career as an artist, he worked in construction and faced an injury that left him bedridden for a year. In order to overcome this challenge, he turned to art as a therapeutic tool.
“Art is what got me back on my feet again,” he said. “As a carpenter, I always worked with my hands, and art is the same thing, but with more freedom. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because I had to rise from those ashes too.”
Since his injury, Tanner’s life has been transformed. His sculpture work is now featured across the state of Michigan and his experiences shine through his work.
As an MFA student, he worked on two different snare sculptures in collaboration with Ugandan artists as part of MSU’s Snares to Wares initiative. The first piece, shaped into a giraffe, is featured in the IQ building on the southside of MSU’s campus, and the second sculpture, a lion, was commissioned by the Detroit Zoo.
Tanner also has an upcoming commission for his hometown of Dimondale, Michigan, which will debut in September 2022. The sculpture will be a 10-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide smallmouth bass positioned to look like it’s jumping out of the river that runs through the village’s newly renovated Danford park.
“They have put so much money into this park with new benches, a new bridge, they redid the dam, and it has trails,” Tanner said. “It’s perfect because people can actually enjoy the sculpture. The community reached out to me for it too, which means a lot, because I grew up in Dimondale.”
“MSU has brought me out of the ashes, and because I went to school here for art, this is the perfect place for this sculpture.”
As Tanner’s latest work, The Phoenix represents not only the collective strength of local, national, and global communities, but of Tanner himself, and of the ashes he has had to personally rise above. By transforming injury into opportunity and loss into life, Tanner was the perfect candidate to create a sculpture that embodies new beginnings.
“MSU has brought me out of the ashes,” he said, “and because I went to school here for art, this is the perfect place for this sculpture.”
However, the creation of the sculpture itself also came with its own set of challenges that Tanner had to overcome. He faced supply chain shortages and delays brought on by the pandemic with material prices 30-40 percent higher than usual and backorders stretching over four months.
“The pandemic put a wrench in everything, but because it’s the phoenix, I guess it was meant to do that,” Tanner said. “I had to reconfigure my materials, and I had to go back to my engineer and make sure everything was still safe. I was working with around seven different entities for this project, and I was always bouncing between different people. But once the process started to happen toward the middle of summer 2021, it went fairly quickly, and it only took a few months to build.”
“I was working with around seven different entities for this project, and I was always bouncing between different people. But once the process started to happen toward the middle of summer 2021, it went fairly quickly.”
The Phoenix now overlooks the IM East athletic fields on campus, with a stainless-steel gazing sphere fixated as the heart of the sculpture. Following the line of steel flames at the base of the sculpture, viewers can gaze into the sphere above them to experience a 180-degree view of their environment.
“It’s so special and unbelievable, it was almost surreal to me at first,” Tanner said. “I drive by it and it’s unbelievable. This is a piece of me on that campus and I can share it with people, and they can all be a part of it.”
Written by Annie Dubois