New public sculpture connects Wausau and Cairo, Egypt
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
With a little help from some local friends, an Egyptian man's vision to convey peace through public art recently became reality in Wausau. Moustafa Saleh, a former exchange student at Wausau's Northcentral Technical College, launched a community-wide campaign in 2008 to install a sculpture promoting peace.
Before traveling to Wisconsin for his studies, the Cairo native says he felt some concern for his safety abroad. Much like U.S. press coverage of Middle Eastern citizens, mainstream Egyptian media commonly casts Americans in an oversimplified and unfavorable light, he explains. Once here, however, he became overwhelmed by the kindnesses residents extended him.
Saleh conceived of the sculpture--a dove carrying a globe on its wings, with the Arabic and English words peace appearing on opposite wings--as his expression of gratitude to the city. But at the heart of the project, he says, is his desire to reveal longings basic to all human cultures: peace, security, a good life.
A team of volunteers helped steer the sculpture from conception to the unveiling in a mere 13 months--an impressive pace, even under optimal economic conditions. Patrick Plunkett, the artist and retired engineer who designed and built the sculpture according to Saleh's vision, confesses to some doubts along the way. "In the back of my head, I kept thinking, 'The economy is tanking. Where are we going to get the [money] to build this?'" he says. "The whole thing surprised me from day one. I can't give the city of Wausau enough credit."
For his part, Saleh remained resolute: "My secret power is that if you believe in something you will have it done." He felt from the beginning that he ought to make the first contribution to the campaign, but visa restrictions prevented his earning income in the United States. So to kick off the fundraising, Saleh sold his blood plasma and donated the proceeds directly to the peace project. He says others followed his example by also donating plasma to help fund the sculpture. Later on, the group raised around $10,000 by selling t-shirts designed especially for the effort.
Plunkett, too, immersed himself in the work and estimates he contributed around 1,300 hours of his time to design and create the piece. All worth it, claims the former soldier and long-time peace advocate: "It's a rare opportunity to get international exposure, and I'm doing something I strongly believe in," he says.
The 10-foot sculpture was installed in downtown Wausau's Whitewater Park, the summer home to multinational, world-class kayaking events. At its base, the word peace can be read in 37 languages, including Braille.
Last November, about 150 people attended a dedication ceremony, including Richard Riley from the U.S. State Department and Deputy Consul General Mahmoud Amer from the Egyptian Consulate in Chicago. Reilly spoke to the value of local diplomacy, in which world travelers and exchange students like Saleh act as citizen ambassadors who foster improved relationships among nations. Saleh continues to call for a grassroots, "people-to-people" kind of journalism, rooted in positive messages that focus on similarities rather than differences. Towards that goal, his mentor family, Peg and Chuck McCarthy, is teaching him to use the online social networking site, Facebook.
A month after the dedication, Saleh returned to Egypt with an associate's degree in Individual Technical Studies from Northern Technical College and a wide circle of friends from Wisconsin's northwoods. What he left behind, he hopes, is the beginning of a global movement.
He hopes to establish a sister city relationship between Cairo and Wausau, saying "with peace, we will know each other much, much better." And he would like a replica of the Wausau sculpture erected in Cairo, and perhaps other cities as well. In fact, Patrick Plunkett waived his copyright to the work and plans to revise his drawings to meet the specifications of fabrication shops around the world.
"Sometimes people say peace is weakness. I say, no, peace is power. For Egyptians and Americans, peace will bring jobs and increase our economy," Saleh insists. "We do not need to wait for the steps coming from the government. No, we can make it ourselves."