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Published September 09 2012

Minnesota sculpture park honors alumnus killed on 9/11

TAYLORS FALLS, Minn. — A year after Michael Richards completed his residency at Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls, he landed some free studio space in New York.

It was on the 92nd floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. Richards was there Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the twin towers, killing him and more than 2,700 others.

Nearly 11 years after Richards’ death, the park is completing a memorial to Richards and the other victims. The glass fiber resin sculpture Richards created during his month at Franconia has been recast in bronze and will be dedicated this week at the park, about 50 miles north of St. Paul.

“The guy had a promising career, and it was cut short,” John Hock, artistic director and co-founder of Franconia Sculpture Park, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He was still an emerging artist but ready to take a real foothold in a sculpture career, which is hard to do.”

Richards used a mold of himself to cast the sculpture's three life-sized figures, which appear as Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who served in World War II. The airmen were a common theme in Richards’ work, which examined social and political issues such as civil rights, Hock said.

The sculpture is titled "Are You Down?" An event to dedicate it and memorialize Richards, 38, and the other victims of 9/11 will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Hock said Richards originally had wanted to cast the sculpture in bronze for durability, but it was too expensive. Sunlight over the years caused the sculpture to deteriorate, and the park has not shown it for several years.

“If we had just let it deteriorate and it got thrown away as trash, it would have been lost forever,” Hock said. “It's an important sculpture.”

Grants from the East Central Regional Arts Council totaling $30,000 and nearly $15,000 raised through the fundraising website Kickstarter made the repairs and recasting possible.

“We're talking about hundreds of hours in volunteer time to pull this off,” Hock said.

Tamsie Ringler, an assistant professor of sculpture at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, met Richards, whom she called “an amazing sculptor and a wonderful human being,” when he was here for his Franconia Sculpture Park/Jerome Fellowship. Ringler and a student helped restore the original sculpture so it could be cast successfully.

Ringler said she found the sculpture was “almost uncanny at times” and the people at the foundry where it was cast felt the same way.

“You almost felt his presence at times,” she said.

Ringler said she worked on the sculpture to help preserve Richards’ legacy and to do something to remember 9/11.

“It's a memorial to him, but it's also a memorial to the entire event,” she said. “I hope we get a lot of people coming out to see it.”