I've seen the beautiful "River of Knowledge" mosaic on the Detroit Public Library's Cass Avenue entrance countless times over the years, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I discovered its connection to the famous "Touchdown Jesus" mural familiar to University of Notre Dame football fans!
Millard Sheets, the artist responsible for the 134-foot-tall religious-themed mosaic unveiled at the South Bend, Indiana, college in 1964, first created the Detroit library's installation in 1963.
Both works are among over 200 architectural designs and murals across the United States credited to Sheets. The artist became prominent in the 1930s as a watercolor artist and educator in California, and he worked with the government's Works Project Administration on several large-scale public art projects during the Great Depression.
Sheets' Detroit "River of Knowledge" mosaic is a colorful 16- by 42-feet installation representing the flow of knowledge throughout the ages that connects the past and present as it sustains and refreshes those who drink from the metaphorical river by using the library's resources.
Sheets conceived the mosaic in five sections to fit into the architectural division created by four red pillars and framed by dark green marble at the building's Cass Avenue entrance. Each section features quotes from famous thinkers like Emerson and Whitman about the benefits of knowledge like strength, order in the face of chaos, foresight, perspective, and harmony with the universe.
The Cass Avenue entrance with its Sheets mosaic is part of a 1960s addition to the Detroit Public Library's 1920s-vintage building.
Detroit Public Library architect Cass Gilbert envisioned the library as a building expressing its own cultural literacy in an Italian Renaissance style. Gilbert worked with McKim, Mead & White, one of this country's leading Gilded Age architectural firms, before going out on his own and winning a competition to design the DPL building in 1913.
The Gilbert-designed library opened in 1921, and many viewed it as the most beautiful building in Detroit at the time.
By the 1950s, Detroit's population soared to nearly 2 million, and the library's collection numbered over 2.5 million books.
The library underwent a major expansion during the early 1960s, commissioning a design for the 240,000-square-foot addition from Francis J. Keally and Cass Gilbert Jr.
The addition with its Sheets mosaic opened to the public on June 23, 1963 and doubled the size of the original building.
Check out my story, Indiana's University of Notre Dame embraces "Touchdown Jesus", to learn more about Sheets' life and one of his most famous masterpieces.
Want to know more? Check out Millard Sheets: One-Man Renaissance by Janice Lovoos and Edmund F. Penney, Art in Detroit Public Places by Dennis Alan Nawrocki, or Parnassus on Main Street: History of the Detroit Public Library by Frank B. Woodford.
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved