Although its creator says he will not claim with certainty that the bronze piece is the largest in the world, one pretty big statue of a golden tiger arrived Friday on the Brenau University campus.
The bronze, a gift of North Carolina philanthropist Irwin “Ike” Belk, represents the university’s Golden Tiger mascot. As something of a hobby, Belk has donated similarly themed pieces to more than 40 colleges and universities, including the U.S. Air Force Academy’s famous flying falcon and Campbell University’s fighting camel.
Belk’s only stipulation is that the pieces be the largest of their kind in the world.
Cumming, Ga.,-based sculptor Greg Johnson, who has completed about 20 of the sculptures on Belk’s commissions, says he is fairly certain that the Brenau piece is the largest of its kind in the United States, and has a degree of confidence the claim will stand worldwide, too.
The 2,200-pound tiger is 7 feet 6 inches tall and 14 feet long. It was cast by Eagle Bronze, Inc., of Lander, Wyo. The piece finished the last leg of the cross-country journey on a trailer pulled by a heavy-duty pick-up truck so it could be lifted gently with straps and lowered onto a granite base by a crane.
Brenau installed the tiger statue in a small, park-like plaza near the intersection of Academy Street and Green Street, one of Gainesville’s busiest thoroughfares. Before the formal dedication, probably sometime in late summer or early fall, Brenau plans to re-landscape the area to convert it into a new front entrance for the university’s main campus in the historic section of the city.
Melissa Morgan, the director of Brenau’s three art galleries and an expert on public art installations, said such installations have a way of quickly integrating themselves into the fabric of the community.
“They become landmarks and curiosities that people want to have their pictures taken with,” she said. “Public art is very important in preserving and representing a community’s heritage and culture not only because it makes art accessible to the community but also because it encourages an environment of possibility. I think this particular piece in Gainesville will unify the campus and the community even more by becoming a catalyst for creativity, conversation and accessibility.”
Sculptor Greg Johnson, who has produced five other pieces for Brenau on university commission – including one much smaller tiger statue that guards the front door to the university’s athletics complex – introduced Belk to Brenau. Last spring, when four of the Golden Tigers’ intercollegiate teams – softball, swimming, tennis and competitive cheerleading – were on their way to finishing the year with top 10 national rankings, Belk agreed to commission a mascot bronze for Brenau.
The university reciprocated by conferring on Belk an honorary doctorate at its May 2012 commencement. However, Brenau President Ed Schrader stated the honor was not just for the statue gift, but for Belk’s myriad contributions to the improvement of education throughout the United States.
Belk, 90, is the son of the founder of the Belk department store chain and, until he retired in 1996, was its president. He was a varsity track and field athlete as a student at the University of North Carolina, and has kept up through his philanthropy to athletics programs in colleges and schools where he has built tracks and athletic facilities as well as with U.S. Olympics Committee, the USA Track & Field Federation and with schools, colleges and universities in 8many states.
“Ike Belk says he got into the business of installing statuary by accident when he was involved with a project that needed some landscaping touches. He simply fell in love with the bronze art form,” said Schrader. “I think it is more than that. I believe that Ike Belk sees art, like sport, as a heroic undertaking. These bold, bronze sculptures that now adorn campuses and other public places around the United States capture the essence of both sport and art. They are monuments to these endeavors that will, as he put it, ‘be here 2,000 years from now’.”
However, Schrader said a Belk legacy “that will outdistance these monuments will be his contributions to that enduring human spirit and to continuous improvement of the human condition and quality of life” in education and other initiatives.
In addition to being the largest contributor to track and field, the Olympics, and bronze art, Belk is also the largest individual contributor to the American Cancer Society.
“And,” Schrader added, “in his spare time he has started more than 150 Presbyterian churches.”