Sumner Preserving MU As Work of Art

Kent Sumner’s desk is built of mahogany and dates back to the Roaring 20s, a deep breath of prosperity separating World War I and the Great Depression. It was used by the Oregon State University Memorial Union’s first two directors, one of whom stored a bottle of whiskey in a bottom drawer.

They could not have intuited that a computer might be placed atop it, and students might stand before it wearing Nikes or sandals, carrying wireless telephones and computers of their own--or that there would not be whiskey within easy reach.

For 17 years, Sumner, 59, Memorial Union (MU) has served as assistant director in charge of marketing and assessment and also has overseen the school’s craft center and managed the MU’s 300-plus art collection and 120-plus piece collection of historic furniture for the Division of Student Affairs.

In a university setting, where new thoughts constantly emerge amid a whirlwind of change, the MU and its vintage adornments play an important role, Sumner says.

“I think it’s a stabilizing force that creates continuity between the classes. For many of the alumni, it’s their connection with the university.”

When Sumner, a sculptor, began his job, he and his wife, artist Claudia Cave, went through the art collection with only an incomplete, 10-year-old inventory list to guide them. What they discovered were bits and pieces of a collection now valued at $4.25 million.

“Every once in a while I would find a piece that I knew was historically significant, but it was just in the racks like it was nothing,” says Cave.

One of the treasures, barely visible behind glass coated with grime, turned out to be an intaglio print by French expressionist Georges Rouault, who destroyed much of his work prior to his death in 1958.

Also in storage were two paintings by Max Pechstein, who was regarded a “degenerate” artist by Nazis during World War II and forbidden to show or sell his work. The Pechsteins are the most valuable pieces in the collection, but the significance of most of the art is measured not in dollars but in their relationship to the school.

There are paintings by Leo Fairbanks, the school’s first art/architecture professor, a member of the “ash can school” movement characterized by artists who splintered off from traditional highbrow subjects to everyday people doing everything things.

There are numerous prints from the collection of Gordon Gilkey, an art professor who became dean of Liberal Arts. During World War II, Gilkey was authorized to travel throughout Europe searching for art in danger of being destroyed. During the course of his travels, he surreptitiously provided artists with supplies in exchange for prints, says Sumner.  

The collection’s first piece is a lithograph print by French war-artist Lucien Jonas. His print of three heroic soldiers is in need of repair. Once restored by students, who do much of the work, it will find a new home on in the student union.

“We feel the art is only valuable if it’s out and about,” Sumner says. “We try to keep them available to the public.”

The four corners of the building’s second story are home to the La Raza Room, Asian/Pacific American Room, American Indian Room and Pan Afrika Safkora Room, each with art representing culture.

In the La Raza Room is a painting by Portland artist Hector Hernandez depicting the history of Latino cultures in Oregon, ranging from fields to skyscrapers.

In the Pan Afrika Safkora Room is a painting of the Vanport community of Portland, a multicultural neighborhood where Sumner’s parents once lived after World War II.

“The community was wiped out by a flood,” he says. “Because it was primarily an African American community, many people thought the city didn’t respond as quickly as it should have.”

A piece painted on hide from the early 1900s by Oregon artist Carrie Gilbert hangs on the wall of the American Indian Room; and in the Asian/Pacific American Room are pieces by renowned Japanese artist Sekino Junichiro, who once taught printmaking at OSU.

To take on the full flavor of the building, Sumner sometimes stands on the balcony, atop the lounge, lined by William Henry Price landscapes, to take in the full flavor of the building.

It’s where his passions for history, political science and art merge. Students long ago sat at the tables and lay on the couches beneath the room’s high ceilings. It’s a place where speakers such as Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem and Ann Coulter presented impassioned messages that changed the world.     

In the way that libraries preserve words of the past and gravestones evoke memories of lives once lived, the lounge commemorates the sea of change that links past, present and future.

“Almost all the furniture here is original to the building,” he says of the lounge. “Most of it was manufactured by a company called Kittinger, the same company that outfitted the White House. If you’re watching the news and you see the president sitting in a chair, it’s likely to be the same as ours.”

Over the years, the furniture has been reupholstered. The lounge carpet, a replacement for the original, is the largest single woven carpet in the United States, Sumner says.

This spring, Sumner played sleuth when he researched a 30-inch terrestrial globe stored in a room off the lounge. Pencils had been stuck through it, and portions of the map had begun to peel off.

He knew the globe was made before 1930 because it included the city of Constantinople, which became Istanbul that year. He contacted antique globe dealers and learned that it was made sometime between 1920 and 1927 and was a very rare and valuable item if it was in perfect shape.

It turned out that the globe was donated by the class of 1929, the same year the MU was dedicated. His search included calls first to Portland, then the East Coast, then England and, finally, to Massachusetts, where the globe is being restored to its original condition.

Upon its return, it’s likely to remain in the MU for decades to come, along with paintings and furniture, including a mahogany desk whose story begins with a bottle of hooch and continues through chapters that only the imagination can behold.


Story by Duane Noriyuki

Photo by Mark Dilson