Credit Line: Commissioned by Univeristy Museums. Gift of the family and friends of Paula Gmelch, for the Paula Gmelch Memorial Garden, College of Human Sciences. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Surrounded by beds of perennial flowers and other artwork in the courtyard of Lagomarcino Hall, the site of She Was the Best Listener is a place for reflection and repose. The sculpture itself, a stack of ceramic books with a water basin at the top, was created to memorialize the legacy of Paula Cowgill Gmelch, a leader and role model to the students in the field of early childhood education.
After the sudden death of Paula at age 59, members of the Iowa State Community felt it appropriate to commemorate the passion and work of this longtime educator and encourager. Her husband, Walt, who had been a previous dean of the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University, asked artist Ingrid Lilligren to undertake this honor. Lilligren knew that this was an emotional arrangement for the Gmelch’s and she felt that it was important to incorporate personal touches from the family. After corresponding with Walt and the family, Lilligren determined that the essence of the memorial would encapsulate Paula’s love of education.
She Was the Best Listener is composed of a stack of ceramic books that signify enlightenment as well as Paula’s dedication to education. Paula commonly read several books at once and always had a stack of books at her bedside. The title of the sculpture, She Was the Best Listener, was taken from her son Ben’s eulogy. Titles on the books, such as Peter Pan and the Tiger and Curious George, relate to Paula’s passion for early childhood education. The book at the top of the basin, For One More Day, was the book Paula had been reading at the time of her death. These influential titles were suggested to Lilligren by family members to personalize the memorial. Lilligren wrote that as well as taking “some liberties with proportions to create a more dynamic overall composition,” certain books were larger than life because of the important role they played in Paula’s life.
On top of the stack of books sets a water basin, inscribed with, “If I could have one more walk, one more talk, I would say… Don’t wait, say it today.” The incorporation of the water and the flowers in the adjacent planters were meant to signify the eternal cycle of renewal. Perennials, chosen to chronicle the Gmelch’s travels around the world, bloom each year in the planters and relate to the natural cycle of life.
Ingrid Lilligren has been a professor for the Department of Integrated Studio Arts at Iowa State University since 1993. She obtained a BFA from University of Wisconsin River Falls and a MFA from the Claremont Graduate University in California. Lilligren’s first passion, ceramics, has been her primary focus throughout her career and she continues to teach ceramics at ISU. Often working with student assistants on her large projects, Lilligren has developed several public works of art for commissions across Iowa, including Babe’s Turn in Grinnell, and Patterns for Life in Lewis.
Written by Julie Finelli, University Museums Docent