This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Centrepiece.
Centre commissioned The Flame, its first large-scale sculpture, to mark its sesquicentennial. Fifty years later, as Centre celebrates its bicentennial,The Flame has become one of the College’s most recognizable icons. The 11-foot, 2,000-pound bronze sculpture represents the College’s motto, “Learning Is the Light of the Mind.”
The sculptor was John Somville, a Belgian artist who taught art and French at Centre for three years. His assistants were two art students, Dottie Smith ’69 and Jay van Arsdale ’70. Smith, an English major from Dallas, financed the piece with the support of her family and donated it to the College in memory of her late father, Ray Smith, who had owned several trucking businesses in Texas. Van Arsdale was an art major from Burgin, Ky.
The trio spent three months creating a full-scale model of plaster and wire. They then cut the model into seven pieces for its journey to the Fine Arts Sculpture Foundry in Michigan. The foundry cast the pieces separately in bronze before welding them together for the return trip to Centre.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words from his play Götz von Berlichingen grace its marble base: “Where the light is brightest the shadows are deepest.” In his 1992 Centrepiece essay “The Fire in the Front Yard,” English professor Paul Cantrell wrote of Goethe’s words, “The quotation is sufficiently felicitous (albeit ambiguous) to take any number of affirmations positively intended.”
Speaking at the sculpture’s dedication on Oct. 17, 1969, Smith said, “As this sculpture represents a flame, it also represents man’s ability to do.”
On The Flame’s 40th anniversary, van Arsdale reflected on his life-changing experience as part of its creation.
“The Flame will always represent to me the light that we were learning to see and the awareness and responsibility that was coming to us, as we were finding our voices and taking our place at the table with the grown-ups, comprehending our own personal light and following its organic transformation to banish the powerlessness and darkness we often feel about us,” he wrote.
Pointing out that his college years were marked by the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the challenges of integration, he added, “From the infancy of ideals to the maturing of ideas, The Flame represents the transformation of justified concerns and constructive actions.”
Van Arsdale moved to California after graduating and is now one of the foremost American practitioners of a specialized form of Japanese carpentry.
Smith attended seminary and became an elder in the United Methodist Church, serving in Louisiana for 16 years. She now is pastor at Lakeview United Methodist Church in Dalhart, Texas. Her Christian banners and liturgical art can be found in Alaska, Dallas, Louisiana, and Haiti. She also enjoys doing pet portraits in pastel or oil.
And Somville moved to France, where he continued to sculpt and recently wrote a book about his youthful experiences under the wing of Henri Charrière, the French novelist who wrote Papillon. Three additional Somville pieces remain on campus, two in the library and one in Young Hall.