Jim Barnhill looks through archival photos on a workbench: of a 2002 visit on site with many members of the Class of ’53, all in hardhats. Of the foundry in Seagrove. Of the 2003 installation of the statue onto the 10-foot base. He wanted it to be placed tall, in order to inspire – and so students were less likely to try to climb it.
“Poor Mr. McIver over there,” he says, referring to the statue on Jackson lawn. “He’s had all sorts of stuff put on him over the years.” So far, students have mainly just put apples at the Minerva statue, a good luck tradition.
There are lots of memories in those snapshots.
The Class of ’53 commissioned him to sculpt Minerva. Elliott University Center (known earlier as Elliott Hall) was expanding. The statue would anchor the area between the center and College Avenue.
He gave Minerva’s face a stern gaze, feminine with a strong jawline, he says. She is our “alma mater – ‘nourishing mother.’”
The helmet with crest suggests power – and wisdom gives you power, he adds.
“In conceiving Minerva, I was looking for a figure with both movement and, yes, a stillness.”
One foot is off the base, the plinth. “I call it ‘plinthus interruptus.’”
Additionally, the form has a curve, further suggesting movement, with the heel out of the frame.
“The robing was to suggest the flutes of a column.” He used ropes of clay to achieve the ripples in her robing. He notes you can still see the ropes under the tooling marks if you look very closely.
The paneled-looking device on her chest, above the high waistband, is inspired by an approach Michelangelo took on one of his Madonna statues. “I think it worked pretty well.”
The greenish, verdigris patina was of vital importance. “I wanted a crusty, came-from-the-bottom-of-the-Mediterranean-Sea look.” It conveys age and depth, associated with wisdom.
At the Carolina Bronze Sculpture foundry in Seagrove, he worked on the patina himself. He still maintains the patina with cleanings and touch- ups of the statue.
The rise of a sculptor
Jim came to UNCG to study painting as a master’s student. During his first semester he ventured into a sculpture class, and he was hooked.
He had never before sculpted live models. Professor Andy Martin let him finish the painting course doing sculpture. He has never looked back.
Department Head Bert Carpenter had recruited sculptor Peter Agostini from New York City. Jim still marvels at his first visit to campus, into the foundry. “There was Peter Agostini working on something, and he just started talking to us about art, and it was fascinating.”
“He had an international reputation.”
After graduation, Jim was in various locations in the U.S. He returned to teach art in the school system, then at NC A&T. Early commissions included works in Asheville and Birmingham. The large bust of Booker T. Washington at his birthsite. Then the iconic statue of the Greensboro Four on the front lawn of NC A&T. As he worked on that, the Woman’s College/ UNCG Class of ’53 commissioned him to create Minerva at his alma mater. Later, he’d be commissioned by the Bryan Foundation for yet another iconic Greensboro statue, of General Greene on downtown’s Greene Street.
Through this public art, he has shaped how the people of Greensboro see their city, their history – who they are. These statues draw you to them, and reflect something vital.
Artistic legacy in the making
He sometimes stops by to see the Minerva statue, often getting a cone at Yum Yum beforehand.
He is well aware of the new tradition of leaving apples or coins at the base, especially at exam-time.
On a recent visit, a tall student came up and placed an apple in dead center of the base of the statue.
You have a test? Jim asked him. Be sure to study, Jim told the student as he continued to class.
Jim created Minerva in NC A&T’s Harrison Auditorium’s basement, before it was renovated. There was plenty of space to work and view it from different perspectives. Minerva’s gesture was particularly important – he had to get that just right.
The arms were key. The two-part gesture represents the students’ journey, he says. It’s the perfect gesture for an incoming student, a student at exam-time, one who’s graduated, one returning for reunion.
Her left arm reaches out and beckons. It’s an invitation. “It says, ‘Come to me.’”
The other is equally clear, he explains.
“Go. Go out full, complete. Go out ready for the world.”