written and photographed by Jolene VonGunten for Mennonite Education Agency
ELKHART, Ind. – At first look, Emma Zuercher’s sculpture invokes fire. That is precisely the theme she envisioned for “Forged Spirit,” an 11-foot sculpture she designed and created of recycled aluminum materials. The towering, colorful structure was a striking image in the late afternoon sunshine as it was installed at the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) offices on Wednesday, August 2, 2023.
The partnership between Zuercher and the MC USA offices was established through the Maple Scholars Summer Research Program, an intensive 8-week program of Goshen (Ind.) College, in which faculty submit research proposals, and students apply for projects that interest them. Faculty members are then paired with the students to mentor and supervise their work. The students live in community for the duration of the program and are encouraged to support each other in their projects. Goshen College provides stipends to the students and faculty and most of the funding for the projects.
Goshen College art professor John Mishler, also a 1972 graduate, submitted a proposal to the program on behalf of the MC USA offices for a sculpture to cover the base of a defunct light pole.
Zuercher was the perfect choice for the project. But not only because she is an aspiring artist-welder.
Three organizations occupy the building in partnership, and Zuercher has close ties to each of them: MC USA, Mennonite Mission Network, and Mennonite Education Agency (MEA). Growing up in Apple Creek, Ohio, her family attended Sonnenberg Mennonite Church, an MC USA congregation. After high school, she participated in Service Adventure, a program of Mennonite Mission Network, in which she taught art at a Goodwill Industries program in Colorado Springs for eleven months. She then attended and graduated from Goshen College, a partner-school of MEA. With meaningful connections to each of the agencies in the building, the partnership with Zuercher seemed more than a coincidence.
“Emma is a great example of the interconnectedness between the three organizations and how to relate to each other,” said Michael Danner, Executive Director of MEA and Associate Executive Director of Church Vitality for MC USA.
“Forged Spirit” was influenced by the Exodus stories of the burning bush and the pillar of fire, a concept that resonated both with Zuercher and the three partner organizations that use the building. Zuercher liked the idea of giving recycled materials a second life, a rebirth forged from the fires of the welding process. The church organizations appreciated the symbolism of God’s grace and presence with us and the rebirth we can find through Jesus Christ.
“The apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation,” said Danner. “The sculpture invites us to think deeply about this transformation.”
Professor Mishler gave Emma full credit for the design and creation of the piece. “I really enjoyed working with Emma and seeing her take on this commission for the Mennonite offices,” he said. “She created a large-scale sculpture that looks great in its location. It also captures the uplifting spirit of the church. And when she was welding the aluminum,” he joked, “she only burned me once!”
Marisa Smucker, Interim Executive Director of Mennonite Mission Network, felt a personal connection to the piece. “This sculpture begs you to look closer, the same way in which one is drawn to gaze at a bonfire,” she said. “As you get nearer, you see the variety of metal shapes and textures, as well as the various shades of paint. In some places, the metal is not painted,” she noted, “and I had read that Emma Zuercher’s intention was to ‘see what the material is and where it came from,’ and ‘also see a reflection of the area around the sculpture.’ So, I stood in front of one of those areas and could vaguely see my own reflection. It was almost like becoming part of the sculpture. This makes me think of the Holy Spirit who draws us in, invites us to be a part of the dance, God’s movement in the world.”
The design is reminiscent of another work of art on the property that represents a call to faithfulness. In 2012, the newly completed 35,000-square-foot building was dedicated for service to MC USA. To mark the occasion, David Fisher Fast designed and created “Tongues of Fire,” inspired by the Pentecost texts in Acts 2. Fisher Fast is the Lead Art Designer for Mennonite Mission Network and is an alum of Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Va., another partner-school of MEA, and Goshen College. Like Zuercher’s sculpture, Fisher Fast’s pieces resemble flames and draw the eye upward.
It seems fitting that the denomination recently completed a biennium focused on the theme #BeTransformed. Remarked Michael Danner, “These two sculptures depicting the Holy Spirit, one marking the building’s origins and the other a call to rebirth in this place in time, represent MC USA’s commitment to faithful discipleship and being transformed into a ‘new creation.’”
“On behalf of MC USA and MEA, we are grateful for the opportunity to partner with Goshen College’s Maple Scholar program, and in particular with Emma, in the creation of the sculpture that now graces the MC USA building grounds,” Danner said. “We trust that employees, visitors, and passersby will be blessed.”
Mennonite Education Agency is headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana, and partners with Anabaptist-Mennonite educational institutions and programs affiliated with Mennonite Church USA to provide resources, networking, and support to school administrators, faculty, and staff. As the education agency of MC USA, MEA connects church and school together in a complementary and cooperative way to strengthen the church through education.