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Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center Sculpture Celebrates Women’s Contributions to Wyoming

February 21, 2014
Man sculpting
Wyoming artist D. Michael Thomas works on a sculpture that will be displayed in the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center’s north courtyard. (UW Photo)

Wyoming is the Equality State. It was the first state to give women the right to vote, to serve on juries and to hold public office. Women before and after this landmark legislation have deeply shaped the state’s society and culture.

To celebrate women’s accomplishments, a larger-than-life sculpture will be on permanent display at the University of Wyoming Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center. Wyoming artist D. Michael Thomas created a sculpture that features a female rider breaking through a sandstone wall, which will be displayed in the Gateway Center’s north courtyard.

“Part of the story that Michael Thomas’s piece is representing is the important role women have played in our state,” says Ben Blalock, president of the UW Foundation. “It represents how Wyoming has been defined through the years through women who have broken through and who have made an important difference in our society, and certainly continue to play a key role in the advancement of the University of Wyoming.”

On Dec. 10, 1869, the Wyoming bill that granted women’s suffrage was signed into law. Three months after that, Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass became the nation’s first woman justice of the peace. The county clerk announced it to the world via telegraph: “Wyoming, the youngest and one of the richest territories in the United States, gave equal rights to women in actions as well as words.”

In Laramie on Sept. 6, 1870, Louisa Swain -- described by a Laramie newspaper as “a gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance”-- was the first woman in the United States to cast a vote in a general election.

Estelle Reel was elected a Wyoming state superintendent of public instruction in 1894, making her the first woman in the U.S. to be elected to a state office. Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first elected governor to take office in the U.S. She then went on to be the first woman appointed director of the U.S. Mint, a position she held for 20 years.

These accomplishments and more will be permanently honored at the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center.

Originally, there was only going to be one statue at the Gateway Center: a representation of the iconic Wyoming horse Steamboat. The artists, Chris Navarro and D. Michael Thomas, were given the freedom to create what they wanted, as long as it was approachable, photos could be taken with it from every angle, and the representation of the horse and rider was aggressive. A winner would then be chosen.

“Nothing defines the University of Wyoming like the bucking horse and rider,” Blalock says. “It is the iconic symbol for the state of Wyoming, and certainly it is a symbol that represents the University of Wyoming very well.”

Both artists took this assignment with enthusiasm. They came up with remarkably different sculptures, knowing that only one of them would be chosen to be displayed. The clay maquettes were put on display for the UW Foundation board members. Both sculptures were so exciting and dynamic that it was decided that both should be part of the facility.

“When they said that they wanted a possible bucking horse of Steamboat, I thought, man, they already have one,” Thomas says. “I just felt that the university needed something different than just a bucking horse, and I didn’t know if it would be chosen or not, but I thought it would be very different.”

Thomas’s original concept was a cowboy and his horse busting through a sandstone wall. After both sculptures were chosen, he was asked to make the rider a woman, which he agreed to do.

“I got to messing around with it, and I took the man off and I started sculpting a young woman, and I really enjoyed it,” Thomas says. “I thought, this is more fun than having a man on there.”

He adds, “Then, of course, I had to make her outride the guy, so she’s actually sitting on this horse pretty well and she’s got a grin on her face, where I had a grimace on the guy’s face. She’s just thinking, ‘This is a piece of cake, boys.’”

The piece, tentatively titled “Breaking Through,” will stand almost 16 feet tall and be almost 8 feet wide. The sandstone wall will be more than 20 feet tall and 17 feet wide. The sculpture will be located on the north side of the building in War Memorial Plaza.

“When you look at a work of art, you feel something,” Blalock says. “And we knew that when the right piece of art was created, it would give a message that wouldn’t require any words.”

Thomas has been sculpting for more than 30 years. He graduated from UW in 1977 with a degree in animal science and pre-veterinary medicine. He worked in the agribusiness field as a loan officer and manager of a feed and ranch supply business for 16 years. In 1993, he became a full-time artist. Thomas grew up working on cattle ranches in western Wyoming, and his art depicts cowboys and events he participated in or witnessed firsthand.

Thomas’s sculpture has been supported by a donation of $500,000 from Marian H. Rochelle and her daughter, April Brimmer Kunz.

Marian H. Rochelle is one of the largest donors in UW’s history. In 1990, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources awarded her the Outstanding Donor award; she received the Cornerstone Award in 1999; and, in 2000, she received the Athletics Hall of Fame Special Achievement Award. Her support of UW is unparalleled.

“The bronze sculpture ‘Breaking Through’ is an amazing creation designed by Mike Thomas of Buffalo,” Brimmer Kunz says. “My mother, Marian H. Rochelle, said that the bronze depicts her message to students at the University of Wyoming through the Gateway and the sculpture. An education at UW will help them to break through walls and find their way to their destiny. The Latin phrase on the back of the sculpture roughly translates to ‘and thus to the stars,’ representing the fact that students can achieve their goals and desires after breaking through the wall with a degree from the University of Wyoming. The bronze also represents the achievements of women in the Equality State.”

Brimmer Kunz received her law degree at UW in 1979. In 2003, she became the first woman elected president of the Wyoming State Senate. She served as a state representative from 1985 to 1992 and a state senator from 1992 to 2004, representing Laramie County as a Republican. She was Senate majority floor leader during the 2001-02 session and Senate vice president for 1999-2000. She also served in the House from 1985-86 and 1991-92.

The two sculptures that will be on permanent display at the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center represent the state of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming well, and will be a source of pride and inspiration for all those that come to view them.

“The works of art will not disappoint,” Blalock says. “They are both beyond the expectations of anyone who comes to the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center.”

The Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center is a remarkable statement regarding the impact of private fundraising on Wyoming’s university. It is funded completely through private support, including a $10 million commitment from Marian H. Rochelle to name the center and a $6 million commitment from Mick and Susie McMurry through the McMurry Foundation to name the center’s two most prominent visitors’ spaces: the McMurry Foundation Grand Atrium and the McMurry Foundation UW Legacy Hall.

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