Memorial Recognizes Strength of Community After April 30

Categories: News Tags: Art & Art History

It’s quiet in the garden where the new memorial stands tall among the trees. Sometimes sunlight filters through the leaves to illuminate a message of hope.

You are strong enough. Always believe. We have each other.

“It’s such an environment of peace, of seeking silence,” says senior art major Vannah Mobley. “It invites you into the space.”

Mobley is one of 42 students who have worked over the past semester to create a sculpture in the Botanical Gardens that commemorates the way Niner Nation came together in the aftermath of April 30, 2019. Designed by Associate Professors of Art Marek Ranis and Thomas Schmidt, the sculpture is itself a product of community, of many hands and hearts.

Here is the story of its creation.

stones and flyer on table top

Almost immediately after the shooting on April 30, 2019 that ended the lives of Riley Howell and Reed Parlier, the Botanical Gardens staff “kicked into high gear,” says Assistant Director Amy Tipton. “We asked, what can we do to provide something?” After quick deliberation, they decided to invite people to write their thoughts and feelings onto small smooth river rocks and leave them in the garden. A table with stones and markers was set up in the Susie Harwood Gardens.

stones in the garden, with messages for Niner Nation

“It was really fascinating how right away we saw the stones popping up,” Tipton says. “They were just beautiful sentiments.”

drawings of sculpture

Hundreds of people came to the gardens to choose, inscribe, and place stones. Tipton, who has degrees in art as well as botany, and Botanical Gardens Director Jeff Gillman felt that the profound response deserved some kind of permanent artistic manifestation. They contacted Schmidt, who had frequently brought his art students to the garden, and Schmidt engaged his colleague Ranis. The two produced concept drawings.

students engraving stones

The 12-foot tall sculpture called for large river rocks to replace the smaller stones. To preserve the exact handwriting and drawings on the originals, Ranis and Schmidt and students in four different classes took photographs of the small stones, printed the images, and laid them on top of the large stones.

students engraving and painting stones

They then engraved the stones through the photographs, cutting the words and designs into the stones’ surfaces so that they cannot wash away. Finally they painted the engravings black so that they would appear just as they had originally. “I feel like the project did a great job of helping us remember,” says Mobley (above left), who was a freshman in April 2019. “It helped everyone remember that we were all in this thing together.”

faculty and students loading stones into the steel frame

The art professors (above left and center) donated their time, and engineering alumnus Garret Overcash, Project Engineer at SKA Consulting Engineers, prepared the structural drawings pro-bono. But materials and fabrication aren’t free. Funding for the project came from the Student Activity Fee Commission based on a request from the Student Government Association. Peachland Design and Fabrication and Heartland Construction did the physical fabrication and installation of the steel frame. Caroline Hill of Facilities Management served as project manager. “It’s built like a tank,” Ranis says. “It’s very sturdy.”

sculpture in the garden, complete

Ed Davis, horticultural supervisor and landscape architect for the Botanical Gardens, suggested the site for the sculpture: an elevated landing near the gazebo and Asian garden, encircled by benches and tulip poplars. “We call this place ‘Little Stonehenge,’” Tipton says.

“We are so thankful to the Botanical Gardens for donating this beautiful site for the memorial,” says Schmidt. “You couldn’t ask for a more serene location.”

students putting rocks in memorial sculpture

“Ultimately, every contribution to this memorial – those made back then and those made recently in our class – reflects the legacy of Niner Nation Remembers and forms connections with the school, with Riley and Reed, and with each other,” says art student and Levine Scholar Danielle Walden, who, like Mobley, was a freshman in 2019 and will graduate in May. “The sculpture becomes a beacon of hope, one that transcends the bounds of time and the circumstances of what happened, and instead applies itself to brightening negative situations.”

live selflessly, written on stone

“I hope future students can visit this site and take the time to move around the sculpture,” Walden continues. “I hope they reflect deeply on past events and it encourages them to take better care of each other and themselves in the here and now.”

Amy Tipton at memorial sculpture

A simple dedication of the memorial sculpture took place Friday, April 29, at 12:15 pm at the site. Pictured above, Amy Tipton.

For information about other remembrance activities, visit

Photos are by Lynn Roberson, Amy Tipton, Marek Ranis, Tom Schmidt, Andrew Brooks, and Wade Bruton.

Hear more from the sculpture’s creators in this WBTV News special broadcast.