Montana State University

From Montana to the Mediterranean: Helzer's gate links two worlds

August 13, 2007 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

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When school swings open this fall in the Angelo Musco School in the heavily urbanized Sicilian suburb of Librino, it will do so with beauty, thanks to the work of Montana State University art professor Richard Helzer and one of Sicily's most prominent art benefactors.

Helzer, a sculptor and director of the MSU School of Art, worked for two years to install a steel and wood front-gate sculpture commissioned by Antonio Presti. Presti is a Sicilian art benefactor whose support of art in a traditionally impoverished and crime-ridden area of Italy has made him celebrated throughout the world.

It is an unlikely connection between the two men. It spans an ocean, two continents, two years and two very different worlds, Helzer said. The American artist and the benefactor might have never met had it not been for the MSU School of Art's study abroad program in Italy where Helzer learned about Presti and his famous Atelier del Mare a Tusa, an art hotel in which all of the guest rooms are installations by different artists.

Helzer aspired to design a sculpture for the hotel, but after his submission, "(Presti) told me he had something else in mind," Helzer said.

Presti wanted Helzer to design and build a gate for the urban schoolyard of the Angelo Musco School in Librino, a poor and failed housing project in the city of Catania. While he has worked with many prominent European artists, Helzer is the first American to work with Presti on a project.

Presti is the son of a Sicilian industrialist who has for 25 years sought to turn around his country's violent culture through public art. In addition to his hotel, he has funded the installation of Fiumara d'Arte, a large sculpture park in a dried river bottom in his country. Web sites say Presti's funding of public art is "an act of open defiance against the monopolizing authority of the Mafia, an audacious statement that private initiative and work for the public good could be done without succumbing to corruption."

For Helzer, the project "was the commission of a lifetime ...so far." It was not without challenges, Helzer said.

"Librino is a very poor, crowded and impacted area of Catania," Helzer said, adding that it is about as unlike Bozeman as a place could be.

Helzer said he drew on the ancient history of Sicily, and the Greek, Roman and Arab cultures, for the symbolic shapes cut from steel and mounted on the concrete columns. Large shapes evocative of the tide pools in the sea that surround Sicily and tree forms that represent the forests that covered the country side before the Greeks conquered the country, were cut from wood and stained orange and turquoise and attached to the gate. At its highest, the gate is 16 feet and constructed of CorTen and marine plywood.

Helzer made five trips to Sicily over the two years to oversee the manufacture and instillation of the sculpture. Grants from the Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer helped fund Helzer's visits to Sicily to complete the piece.

"I had a great time," Helzer said. "I made wonderful friends and connections."

As the work neared completion in May, Helzer learned that artists have near rock star status in Italy.

"People would ask me for my autograph," he said. When the day of the dedication came there were hundreds of people at the dedication and all-out media coverage. The gate's dedication was the top story in the country's main newspaper, La Sicilia. "Art is perceived differently than it is here."

"I was overwhelmed," Helzer said. "It was the ultimate for me as an artist but I hope it's just the start of something more."

Helzer will deliver a lecture about the building of the Angelo Musco School gate fall semester.

A multimedia feature with Helzer discussing the building of the Angelo Musco School gate, can be accessed at:
http://www.montana.edu/cpa/gallery/070809au/

Richard Helzer (406) 994-4501, helzer@montana.edu