A Living Treasure: Professors Emeritus of Art, Sculptor, Poet, Educator Mac Gimse ’58
“Here dwells the thinker and the scholar, the poet and the missionary, prophet and the reformer; all those who have a vision of a better world and have dedicated their abilities to its realization.” — Professor Carl A. Mellby, 1925
The words of Professor Carl A. Mellby, then considered St. Olaf’s foremost authority on the history of art, embodied the ideals of the college and its traditions. Nearly 100 years later, they embody the essence of Professor Emeritus of Art A. Malcom “Mac” Gimse, a man of faith and grace whose dedication to St. Olaf and its mission, students, and alumni, and his deeply embedded global perspective, is reflected in his life’s vocation: sculpture, poetry, photography, and service.
As an Ole undergrad in the 1950s, Gimse was drawn to philosophy and Asian art, studying with early St. Olaf giants, including professors Harold Ditmanson in religion, Howard Hong ’34 in philosophy, and Arnold Flaten ’22 in art. He credits his wife of 60 years, Jackie, with sparking his early interest in art. Joining the St. Olaf art faculty in 1970, Gimse taught courses in sculpture and art history, including world architecture in China, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa. He built a bronze foundry at the college. He created art in his private studio and in his backyard. He was one of four founding faculty in the fine arts major, taught several rounds in the Great Conversation, and was a Paracollege tutor for more than 25 years. He was a National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Scholar in the South Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York City and in Chinese Art History at the University of Maryland. As a Joyce Foundation Scholar, Gimse conducted research on Indian temples, including six visits to the Taj Mahal.
He and Jackie planned, led, and taught 35 International and Off-Campus Studies programs, including four Global Semesters, two Terms in Asia, and three Terms in the Middle East, and a dozen international Interims, including the Visual Culture of Japan for the St. Olaf Band. They also led an additional 14 Alumni Study Travel programs. With cameras draped around his neck, Gimse chronicled their international travel through the art of photography, and he encouraged students to do the same. The International and Off-Campus Studies Photo Contest, begun by Study Abroad Adviser Helene MacCallum ’73, became an annual event and, in 1983, it was named in honor of the Gimse’s.
“St. Olaf gave me my destiny as an artist and professor,” says Gimse, who received St. Olaf’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008. “It gave me the chance to fulfill my dream of teaching in a liberal arts curriculum set in theological dialogue, which was constantly inspired by many students and esteemed colleagues.”
Gimse’s work is a unique blend of sculpture and poetry that captures the ultimate goodness of humankind. His dedication to peace and human rights is manifested through many commissioned artworks in various forums, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission and, notably, bronze sculptures for 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which have been presented at the Upper Midwest Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Gimse considers the sculptures cast for the Nobel Peace Prize Forum to be instrumental in the choices he’s made for his subsequent work, including the abstract sculpture Angel of Mercy honoring 2011 Nobel laureates Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, 24th president of Liberia and the first elected woman head of state in Africa; Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist; and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist, politician, and human rights activist.
Gimse’s first commission to create sculpture/poetry presentations for the laureates came from St. Olaf in 1989, when the college hosted the inaugural Nobel Peace Prize Forum. The educational event, under the auspices of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and annually hosted by five ELCA Minnesota colleges on a rotating basis, aimed to bring students, faculty, and the public together with Nobel Laureates, national and international leaders, scholars, and peacemakers to address issues of human rights and social justice, climate change, poverty, disease, and other ongoing challenges to humankind.
Striving For Peace was commissioned for the first Nobel Peace Prize Forum at St. Olaf College in 1989. Roots and Wings was cast for the 2004 Forum, and was presented to Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the U.S. and 2002 Nobel Peace laureate.
Bearing the Burden of Peace, shown from two sides, was commissioned for the third Nobel Peace Prize Forum at St. Olaf in 2000. Large bronze sculptures were given to David Trimble and John Hume, 1999 Nobel laureates from Ireland, and to the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway. Read Gimse’s description of the work and its accompanying poem on the college’s art and art history website.
At the inaugural forum, Gimse’s commissioned artwork Striving For Peace was presented to Nobel laureates Norman Borlaug (1977) and the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (1988), and his poetry recognized the work of nine additional laureates, including Lech Walesa, the International Red Cross, Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel, and Mother Teresa. The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Forum based its theme, “Striving for Peace: Roots of Change,” on the humanitarian accomplishments of its 2002 Laureate, Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States. Mac’s sculpture and poetry, Roots and Wings, was presented to Carter, to Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, and to educator Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. Mac’s later work honored the 2014 co-laureates, Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for female education, and Indian social reformer Kailash Satyarthi.
Gimse estimates he has created more than 2,000 bronze pieces over the years, and has carved stone, wood, and just about anything else he can find. Additionally, four of Gimse’s poems have been set to music, two for the St. Olaf Choir and two for the St. Olaf Band. “My joy is in creating art and poetry, no matter where it goes from there,” he says.
His sculptures have been exhibited in more than 120 galleries, colleges, and churches in the United States, as well as in 11 countries. His artwork can be seen at the Nobel Peace Prize Institute in Oslo, Norway, and in the Norwegian royal family collection. And it can be seen locally, in Northfield and in Dundas, where his stainless steel sculpture Between Earth and Sky stands beside the historic Archibald Mill at the trailhead of the Mill Towns State Trail.
“My art is the window of my soul. My poetry is a door through which I invite people to join me in my search for goodness in humankind.”
Now in his 80s, Gimse tirelessly continues to create, firm in his belief that art provides a unique vehicle to “express depth and diversity in the human experience, challenge cultural perspectives, broaden our connection to others, and foster a transformation of values in oneself.”
He most recently completed On Horizon’s Brim, a visual interpretation of our “bending, colorful, and energetic universe.” The stainless steel interactive sculpture is topped by a spinning double dove representing peace, love, and inclusivity. Years in the making, each element of the sculpture has underlying meaning and symbolism (see sidebar) that seeks to generate conversations and create common ground among every culture.
On Horizon’s Brim may be Gimse’s signature sculpture, incorporating themes he has explored through his early Peace Prize Forum sculptures. He continues to express through imagery and poetry the most pressing issues of our day, making each piece timely and relevant. At a time marked by fear of the unknown, coupled with inequity, racism, and social injustice, and then further compounded by the ever-growing threats of climate change, On Horizon’s Brim symbolizes hope. It reaches out to those who “must speak out for their cause, gather comfort where there is unmitigated distress, and celebrate intercultural values in a world that must be more just and peaceful.”
In the end, all Gimse can do is share with others, accepting or not, what is in his heart, what makes life worth living. “My art is the window of my soul,” he says. “My poetry is a door through which I invite people to join me in my search for goodness in humankind.”
Carole Leigh Engblom is the editor of St. Olaf Magazine.
The Symbolism of On Horizon’s Brim
Mac Gimse stands beneath On Horizon’s Brim. His hope is that the sculpture will be recognized as a symbol of peace and inclusivity.
The 24-foot tall, stainless steel sculpture, topped by a 6-foot spinning Double Dove of Peace and Love, is comprised of three parts that work together to envision peace and reconciliation. Each part has underlying symbolism on a local and a global scale.
At the center is the Color Column of Life, with colors that represent a rainbow, a DNA double helix, and skin tones of humankind around the world. At the midpoint of the column is a globe, the Sphere of Our Finite Journey. The wheel at its base can be turned in either direction, one to watch the colors spiral into the globe, simultaneously up from the bottom and down from the top, which represents the geocentric vision of and human capacity for conservation of our planet’s resources. When the column is spun in the other direction, both spirals emanate outward from the globe to symbolize our search for knowledge.
Surrounding the Color Column of Life are four “legs” of support, creating undulating waves and shapes to imply the movement of all elements. The legs have eight images cut into their bases: The blue panels have whale flukes and a breaching whale, representing an endangered species, as well acknowledging all forms of life in, under, and around water. The yellow panels have a soaring eagle and a landing eagle, which represent a protected species along with all things capable of lifting off, natural and human-made. The green panels have trees with roots; one tree has leaves, the other is bare. These represent the endangered forests that absorb carbon dioxide and help to renew our source of oxygen, as well as provide habitat for animal life. The red panels have gender-reflexive humans stretching in all directions, resembling da Vinci’s Vitruvian Human and declaring we are one human flesh. The Double Dove of Peace and Love, constructed of 3-inch stainless steel tubing cut in half to catch the wind, gives it a sense of movement day and night. From one direction, the Double Dove appears to be taking off with its beak down, and from the other direction to be landing with its beak up. It represents a kiss of peace for those who are reconciling issues in good faith through nonviolent civil discourse.