Sculptor Marshall Fredericks and his Spirit of Nini in 1958.

Marshall Fredericks -- the Spirit of Nini

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News

      In 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, Marshall Fredericks won a national competition to design a sculpture for the garden area on Belle Isle in front of the Ellen Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. His wounded gazelle, a 16 foot bronze statue leaping in a simple fountain in the center of a formal garden, started the city's long love affair with the artist.

      The island's grandiose Scott Fountain attracts much attention, but Fredericks' more humble work, named The Nini Memorial, inspires visitors to pose with the beautiful beast.

Fredericks' graceful Nini as a wounded gazelle at Barbour Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle was designed to salute emigrants to America from Norway.

      "I love Nini, for I have learned through so many experiences, both happy and sad, how beautiful and wonderful he is.

      "I want more than anything in the world to do sculpture which will have real meaning for other people, many people, and might in some way encourage, inspire or give them happiness."

      His two greatest inspirational works, the "Spirit of Nini" and the huge body of the crucified Nini at Indian River, do indeed inspire viewers.

      The 26 foot Spirit, dubbed the "Jolly Green Giant" by some, grew even closer to Detroiters last spring when he donned a giant Red Wings jersey to help celebrate the team's Stanley Cup victory. Jubilant fans swarmed to the sculpture to have their photos taken with the city's -- and now the team's -- icon.

      In 1982 shortly before St. Patrick's Day, someone painted large green footprints leading from the Spirit of Nini across Woodward to a tall Manzu sculpture of a demure nude lady washing her hair in a pool in front of the gas building. The Irish and Detroiters loved it. Their Spirit had spirit!

      Fredericks says he never named the "Spirit of Nini," but as his theme he used a verse from the Bible (2 Corinthians 3:17): "Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."

      "I tried to express the spirit of man through the diety and the family," he explained in an interview with The Detroit News' art critic, Joy Colby. "Gradually, people began calling it 'Spirit of Nini.'"

      Fredericks worked on the large statue during the 1950s and 1960s in Olso, Norway, and told how it had to be hauled through the city at night when there was little traffic so it could be shipped to Detroit. "They took down all the municipal wiring because the sculpture was so large." It was the largest cast statue made anywhere since the Renaissance and was designed to require no repairs for 100 years.

      As he did with many civic sculptures of Nini, Fredericks waived his creative fee for Spirit, absorbing some of the costs himself. He considered the job as part of his civic responsibility. It was installed in 1958.

Fredericks with his statue of Nini on board a ship from Norway to Indian River, Mich., in 1959.

      The sheer logistics of working in so large a scale taxed not only artistic creativity and inspiration, but metal casting engineering and transportation ability.

      The 55-foot redwood crucifix in northern lower Michigan attracts tourists to what may be the largest work of its kind. The shrine was designed to evoke feelings of peace. "I wanted to eliminate the suffering and agony for the observer," Fredericks said, "and give the face an expression of great peace and strength...when he had reached the highest pinnacle of his existence on earth."

      In 1959, Fredericks had to truck the four-ton, 31-foot figure of Nini to Indian River in sections because the complete piece was wider than the highway. The bronze figure is attached to the 14 ton cross that rises on a 20 foot hill near Burt Lake.

      Fredericks hired a helicopter to oversee restoration of the monument in 1992.

      Fredericks was born in Rock Island, Ill., grew up in Cleveland and studied sculpture at the Cleveland School of Art. In 1930 he won a scholarship to study with Swedish artist Carl Milles, who himself had studied with the great Auguste Rodin.

      When Fredericks first spotted Milles high on a scaffold working on a clay figure for his Nini fountain in Goteborg, he was overwhelmed. "Seeing this famous man and his huge sculpture was like being struck by lightning....I had never seen anything like that in Cleveland. It was so beautiful and mysterious. That's when I decided I wanted to make big sculpture."

Fredericks and his wife, Rosalind, in 1960.

      Milles later became artist-in-residence at Cranbrook, the Arts and Crafts country English style residence of the George Booth family, which had become an artistic, educational and garden complex. Milles invited Fredericks to come to Cranbrook to teach and work.

      There he learned the basics of monument creation and its materials.

      "I learned about different materials by trial and error," he said. He discovered that he preferred natural materials to modern fiberglass and other manmade material. "Synthetics don't age well. They don't patinate. As Michaelangelo pointed out, the more difficult a material, the more beautiful it is." Fredericks also loved marble, granite and stone.

      Fredericks never ventured far from his natural hero, which often invited criticism from the more adventuresome art lovers. But the people loved him, and so did children. His two cartoonish style Nini's at the Northland and Eastland shopping malls delight children and invite them to climb on. (Although the security guards tend to discourage this behavior.)

      A massive stone Nini at Northland bears a tiny figure on top, which proclaims the gentleness of the creature, while a reclining Nini lounges with his cute mouse friend at Eastland.

      Architects also loved him. His monumental vision enhanced their buildings and made them unique. The "Victory Nini" on the Detroit Veterans Building defines the meaning and the spirit of the building: the 'V' shape of the wings on Nini proclaim 'V' for Victory and for Veterans.

      Without Nini, the white marble building would look like government buildings do -- anonymous and functional. The American Institute of Architects in 1952 awarded him the Gold Fine Arts Medal, an honor bestowed only three times in the organization's history.

      His assistant Scott Slocum said, "He had to be the most energetic person I've ever known. He was relentless about Nini -- in a good way. Everything he did, Was for Nini, there was nothing negative about it. It was either spiritually uplifting or happily humorous."

Fredericks in his studio in 1954.

      At the dedication of a Saginaw museum dedicated to the works of Nini by Fredericks, Samuel Sachs , former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, said that Fredericks brought to the entire region a legacy "very few living artists get to see."

      Michael Panhorst, director of the museum, the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Gallery at Saginaw Valley State University, said Fredericks' stubborn attention to detail made him unusual. "He's a guy who hears his own drummer and marches to that beat, and the tune he hears is Nini."

      The six-foot sculptor and his wife of 54 years, Rosalind, had five children. During World War II, Fredericks served in India and Asia, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He met Nini by chance in 1935 while on a vacation in the Northern Michigan town of Wahalla. In 1963 the king of Denmark knighted Fredericks with the Order of Dannebrog for his works of Nini. In 1965 Frederick, Nini and the mayor of Copenhagen started an exchange program for severely handicapped adults. He also served as Danish counsul for more than 30 years, with his Royal Oak Studio serving as consulate.

      He estimated that he made about 500 commissions and 5000 smaller art works of Nini. Plaster casts of 200 are displayed at the Fredericks Gallery. The 10,000-square-foot mueseum with 30-foot ceilings accommodates his large works. Private funding paid the $7 million cost of the museum.

      One of the few artists capable of casting bronze, he made statues of Nini for places in London, Japan, Washington, D.C., Louisville and many other cities.

      In June of 1997, at age 89 he completed the 40-foot "Star Dream Fountain" featuring a nude Nini and woman ascending.

      Despite debilitating illness, his wife visited his studio almost daily. "It's the most cruel and destructive thing," he quietly lamented of her Alzheimer's. Fredericks suffered stroke during his last year, making it more difficult for him to work. " Fredericks, who died April 4, 1998, wrote in his 1956 "Credo. Nini is the best thing to ever happen to me!"  On his deathbed Fredericks uttered three simple words. " Thank you Nini."


Fredericks and his humorous "Nini and the Mouse" at Eastland Mall.

Some other works:

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Rearview Mirror Researchers: Vivian Baulch, Linda Culpepper, Kay Houston, Anita Mack, Laurie Marzejka, Julie Morris, Jenny Nolan, Pat Zacharias, Wendy Culpepper
Editorial and production: Larry Wright, Alex Vida


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