At the Des Moines Botanical Garden recently we were fascinated by an eye-catching large outdoor sculpture at the entrance. Rainbow-colored, the curved metal struts were evocative of a large whale skeleton perhaps, or a flower with lots of petals in layers, or a series of interlocking “Ws”. It was installed in 1984 but has recently been renovated and returned to its spot here.
Called “Spectral Liberation”, this colorful stainless steel masterpiece was created by internationally known sculptor Christiane Martens, and donated to the Garden by Leonard and Eileen Newman. Martens sculpted it in honor of Des Moines resident and civic leader Connie Belin, whose favorite icon was a rainbow.
The arched struts are polished metal on one side and painted on 2 sides in bright bold colors. It’s geometry in motion, because, depending on the light and where you stand, the colors change as does the illusion of what the sculpture “is”. The Des Moines Botanical Gardens are celebrating its return and are highlighting some of the colors in other ways, such as by asking visitors to find the orange colors of the Firecracker plant and the rich blues of the Blue Butterfly flower.
Entrance to the Garden, at 909 Robert D Ray Drive, is $5 adults, $4 seniors/military, $3 students, well worth a couple of hours. It’s open 10am-5pm daily. The setting is pretty too, alongside the Des Moines River, with a river walk and pathways.
We soon realized that one of the attractive outdoor sculptures in Meadowbrook Park (Molecular Reflection, 1997) in our hometown or Urbana, IL, is also by the same sculptor. As are one in the Urbana Free Library, called Expanding Impulse (2007), and one in the Beckman Institute’s patio on the U of I campus, called Tsunami Ascending (1990). So, we determined to learn more.
We discovered that Martens lives in Urbana, and by a stroke of good fortune we were able to arrange a meeting with her in her Urbana home. She graciously spent over an hour with us, and was very happy to talk about her work and to show us some of the smaller pieces she has in her home and garden, plus many models for the larger installations around the world. Her house is full of light, as she installed skylights in all rooms. She has a small studio in the extensive basement but she now does her major work in a rented studio space.
She’s a soft-spoken lady, a little diffident but also quietly confident, with a soft German accent still (she came to the USA in 1968 from Germany). She taught German then and studied art, and went on to become a professor in the Art Department at the U of I from 1981. She told us that as a school student her favorite subjects were always art and mathematics, and her interest in these melds wonderfully in her sculpted work. We saw a number of her design sketches—all meticulously diagrammed and marked down to the last millimeter, just like an architectural or engineering design. She does paint, but prefers working with metals of different kinds, especially welded steel and stainless steel. She says that she can “think in steel.” She uses the color red a lot but also has works with the bare metal exposed to the elements. The outdoor sculptures are constantly transformed by sun, shade and weather outdoors.
Martens has always been interested in the stars and astronomy, which she is now studying formally since she retired from the U of I. This interest is reflected in much of her work, with orbs, orbits, celestial bodies etc. Even her earliest works showed this interest, before she really knew much about the subject. Some of her smaller works are a curving mesh of almost lacy metal tendrils. She is also passionate about the earth and conservation and some of her pieces are a strong statement on the damage humankind is doing to the earth and nature. Some of these pieces use nests, eggs, and feathers. She also feels strongly about the danger of guns and what guns are doing to our society and this too is reflected in a couple of smaller works that we saw.
Martens is first and foremost a public artist, as she believes all people should be able to share and enjoy. Luckily, as a teacher, she has passed on this philosophy to many of her students.
Some of the monumental works that she seems most proud of are: the one in Alaska (Denali, at University of Alaska, Fairbanks); the one in Sioux Falls, North Dakota (Centripeton, 1977); and the one in the Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan, called Nocturnal Orbits. For this, in 1993 she received the prize for excellence at the Fujisanke Biennale, the largest international competition for contemporary outdoor sculpture.
We felt honored to meet this very talented lady, who still has many projects planned.