Sunday, April 16, 2000

Sculptor makes cut at NKU

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — Dan Collett only wanted to provoke thought and make something beautiful. He never expected to get paid for his sculpture, especially after it stirred such controversy at Northern Kentucky University.

[photo] Dan Collett and his sculture "Humanoid"
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        So this spring he was startled to find himself holding a $1,500 check from the very same institution. NKU officials decided not only to find a permanent place on campus for his piece, but also to buy it.

        “I was just stoked,” says the 22-year-old fine arts major at NKU. “I had never seen that much money.”

        He blew it in two days, he says. Being the classic right-brain type, he acted in the service of his art, paying three months' rent in advance so he could finish other sculptures without the pressure of bills. Then he used the rest of the money to have his dog vaccinated and spayed.

        Thanks to NKU, Mr. Collett finally opened, depleted and promptly closed his first bank account.

        “I'm better off just keeping money in a jar,” he says with an impish grin.

        Mr. Collett, of Crescent Springs, has a talent for offbeat behavior. He stretched enormous holes in his ear lobes, for instance, to express appreciation for indigenous cultures. The holes are stuffed with wooden earrings he turned himself, on a lathe.

        Just for fun, he also spent three years carving an emaciated, one-armed alien out of a tree trunk scavenged from a subdivision site. Explaining this piece, which he based loosely on a fight with his brother, gives him the opportunity to riff on subdivisions.

        “Everyone is out cutting their yards, demonstrating that work ethic,” he says. “Everyone wants to live like everyone else.”

        Subdivisions are like a disease, he thinks. “Every time they build a new one, they tear down a lot of good trees.”

        As it turns out, NKU's new acquisition is not made from one of them.

        The sculpture, “Ishmael's Cage,” is constructed mostly of iron. It features a life-size man who is slouched in the corner of a cage. There are shackles on the man's feet, but they are open, as is the cage door.

        Mr. Collett said his message was that people too often allow themselves to be trapped by their own troubles.

        But when he displayed the sculpture on campus last year, students were alarmed. Was the man supposed to be black? Was this a racist statement?

        The misunderstanding stemmed in part from the sculpture's location. Mr. Collett had placed it on the spot where another sculpture had been removed because of a race-related controversy.

        After the uproar, he was asked to take down his piece. Then, when his intentions became more clear, he was allowed to re-install it.

        Now the university owns it. Officials are still debating where to place it.

        “There's so much thought and meaning behind the piece,” says Mary Paula Schuh, director of campus planning. “There really was a lot of support for purchasing it.”

        This pleases the young artist. Some will now consider him legitimate.

        But he still sees no point in a bank account.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at