Courtyard sculpture: Dr. Wiedenhoeft's interpretation

September 16, 2020

Did you know the sculpture in the Agronomy Courtyard was created by artist Beverly Pepper and is officially called "Janus Agri Altar?" Created in 1986, the bronze sculpture was commissioned by University Museums. 

From the artist
When Iowa State University asked me to do a work on the site of the Agricultural Building [now Agronomy Hall], they suggested that the sculpture reflect the agricultural business in some way. Using the iconography of farm tools, Janus Agri Altar evolved into what I consider to be a seminal piece.

Today’s tools are too sophisticated to engender any visual dialogue in the context of my work. For this reason, I researched antique farm tools common to the area. I focused on a farmer’s spade, and taking this simple form to its furthest extreme, the imagery was transformed. One could not identify the sculpture as a farmer’s spade without some knowledge of this process.

Janus, one of the principal Roman gods, is typically represented with two bearded heads placed back to back so that he might look in all directions at once. While representations of Janus are usually horizontal, I felt this altar had to be vertical – as if it was a mirror image created by standing in a still pool of water. An altar is a place where one refreshes the spirit and looks inside oneself. I wanted to create a peaceful symbol. The Janus Agri Altar is self-reflective in this sense – both looking inward and focusing outward.
-Beverly Pepper

Interpretation from our Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft
For the past 21 years I have walked past the Janus Agri Altar sculpture by Beverly Pepper in the Agronomy Courtyard twice per day, once on my way to my office and once as I am leaving to go home. I can see the sculpture from my office suite. It is always present in my life.

The description of the sculpture on the University Museums’ webpage, notes that, "While representations of Janus are typically horizontal, Pepper created the sculpture on a vertical plane, reminiscent of an image reflected in a pool of water.”

When I look at the Janus Agri Altar, what I see is not a reflection in a pool, but a reflection of above and below the soil surface. The two anvils in the vertical plane represent crop production that we see above ground and crop production that is occurring below the soil surface.

The above-the-soil production is easy to see: it is the shades of green in the field, it is the growth of more and bigger leaves, it is the flowers that are pollinated and fertilized in order to produce fruit, and it is the harvest that feeds us, feeds animals, feeds our cars, and shelters and clothes us. Although in agronomy we often think about the harvestable yield in pounds, bushels, or tons, we should remember that the crop production can give us beauty. In my career some of my favorite highlights are watching amber waves of grains (wheat) in the breeze of the Palouse Hills of Washington, the beauty of white flowers in a large field of potatoes in Maine, the beauty of white puffs of cotton in the fields of North Carolina, and the beauty of blue flowers of flax and the yellow flowers of canola in my research plots in Iowa. Crop production above the soil is ubiquitous, known, and admired.

As much as I love and understand production above the soil surface, the activity below the soil surface is what truly fascinates me, in part because I am still learning about it – and learning is exciting – and because what is hidden below is manifested in what we see and harvest. It is the soil that anchors the plant, that stores the water for plant growth and photosynthesis.  Soil is more than the mineral soil particles, it is an entity that is alive, a living ecosystem. Soil microorganisms in a healthy habitat decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients which reduces the need for applied fertilizers, and provide soil aggregate stability, which reduces soil erosion. The earthworms and other macroorganisms aerate the soil increasing the health of roots and plants.

Healthy soil is the real wealth of Iowa, not the harvested bushels of corn and soybeans. Soil health is what determines our success in the future; it is a gauge of environmental health. Some people go so far as to say that soil health is the indicator of the health of civilization.