About Joel Selmeier

A collection of caps for metal peace poles in development on my bench, most of which soon were discarded.
Metal caps for metal peace poles

Not everyone has a gut level understanding of the need to do mission driven work. Just as not everyone understands how overwhelming can be the need to do creative work. Combine those two and you create a person you’d probably rather not have be the one trying to put your grandchildren through college. 

When I was in college I wasn’t trying to figure out how I was going to earn money. I thought that the most important thing I could do for the human race would be to work for peace. I was trying to figure out how to do that.

Peace pole language in French cut out of half inch thick steel and held vertically so that it shadow spells it out on the floor
Shadows of Peace

To that end, I became a political science major and explored a career at the United Nations, our only department of peace. Eventually I had to face the fact that I did not belong in politics or in a bureaucracy even if it was the UN.

Then in 1999 someone saw a sculpture I was working on and asked if I would submit a proposal to them. They were looking for sculptors to submit designs for a peace pole they wanted to plant. I had never heard of peace poles but did some research and discovered that peace poles are art that is about peace.

Where was this when I was in college?

Years before I had denied my artistic side as long as I could because artists starve to death. I did not want to starve. I also did not know what an artist could do for peace. But my proclivities and talents, the things that wake me up in the morning needing to be dealt with, are artistic. So long before learning about peace poles I gave in and worked in the arts on other things while continually wondering how the arts could serve the cause of peace.

The base of a stainless steel hexagonal peace pole, with the text cut all the way through it, is seen surrounded by daisies.

When Peace Poles crossed my path the only ones available for purchase were wooden posts with plastic plaques on them. Have you ever seen a war memorial made out of wood and plastic? I had designed a multi-ton granite peace pole for a commission, but for everyone else only wooden ones were available. Size and substance and shape have as much to do with the message as the text, so I designed peace poles out of other materials to see if they met anyone’s need.

Art about Peace
I now have explored making peace poles out of many things – stone, stainless steel, copper, Corten (weatherable steel), wood, bronze, steel, resin, etc. I even tried making a peacepole out of aluminum soft drink cans (hey, it’s recycling). I continually explore and experiment to see what else can be created.

Taller than normal peace pole - three time normal height. It is shaped like a steeple, beginning its slope to a point starting at the ground.
Steeple Shaped Peace Pole

I also tried to create peace poles that are more lighthearted. I want to maintain the traditions, but shouldn’t some poles about peace be a little less formal? These are not war memorials. Shouldn’t some of them be something at which kids giggle? But how do you make that happen without its looking like a hippie-fringe movement?

I worked on that for years without coming up with a solution. Then I made an innocent quip. A customer had ordered thirty resin peace poles for a group. I put each in its own box and put all of the boxes in one crate. The boxes were numbered from #1 to #30 to indicate to whom each went. But I have a hard time doing repetitive non-creative work. I couldn’t help it. In the middle of the crate I put an extra box and numbered it zero.

A six-foot-wide blade hanging from the ceiling by a very thick custom chain, coming within inches of the floor.

They tell me that the delivery truck arrived on a hot summer day and left the crate filled with peace poles in the middle of an expanse of burning hot asphalt. Rather than attempt to drag the heavy crate off of it they began removing the peace poles from it to haul them one at a time.

Halfway through they found the box numbered zero. They groaned that there was no number zero and the whole numbering system was off and they were going to have to open every one of the boxes to see which languages were on which and from that try to determine who was supposed to get which one. 

Frustrated they ripped open box #0 and saw that in four languages it said “Peace, Dude.” They tell me they laughed so hard that they could not stand up and, even though the pavement was burning hot, ended up lying on their backs laughing too hard to get up.

That was a better response than I had hoped for. But more came. They did not hide that pole in a garage as a joke that had gotten its laugh. They shared it. It got such a positive response that now when they go to schools for peace ceremonies, that is the peace pole they take along.

One of the few peace poles that gets a laugh with "Peace, Dude" in four languages.

Here is what they wrote to me about it:

“It does have a real life with our students, for sure…  I remember when you told me that you wanted a peace pole that would appeal to school-age children.  Something ‘off beat’ that might have a sense of humor – causing a person to think in a different way.  Your goal continues to be accomplished!  That was one ‘outside the box’ idea that works each time the pole moves to a new class and school. I’m so glad you shared that one and didn’t just dismiss the thought out of hand.”

Ya work and ya work and ya work, and then some flippant quip uttered (on a peace pole) in period of boredom and frustration turns out to be the simple solution. Trying to find such solutions is why I keep working on new designs for peace poles.

The workbench in my shop with a manual metal shear and a  massive vice and a drill press below shelves of supplies

An art dealer asked me if I could make mobiles for her. She had had an artist making them for her, but he had a drug problem and she had to stop working with him. Her goal had been to establish an artist as a creator of them and then try to get a commission for a large one in a commercial building. She asked if I had ever made a mobile.

As my mind raced to formulate the answer on the spot, it occurred to me for the first time in decades that I had begun making mobiles when I was 7 years old.

When I was 7 and my friends were playing baseball and collecting baseball cards, I was collecting pictures of mobiles and stabiles, made by the famous artist Alexander Calder, that I cut out of magazines. In my bedroom I created versions of my own. Decades later it was a Calder-inspired 45-foot-long mobile that I made for display in front of an art museum that led to a commission that introduced me to peace poles. So, yes, I could make mobiles for the art dealer, but in the end I was too busy working on peace poles and didn’t.

Head shot of me, the sculptor/artist/peace pole maker, resting my chin on a nearly horizontal limestone peace pole on which I'm working

However, it also caused me to remember that when I was 7 years old, in school one spring an art teacher told our class that we were going to make 3D paper bunnies for Easter by rolling paper into coils. I went to her after she had given us the directions and asked if I had to make a bunny again like last year. She never appeared to like children and snapped, “Well, what else would you make?”
“I don’t know. A horse?”
“How would you make a horse?”
I tried explaining. She didn’t get it, but snapped, “Ok. Ok. Go ahead.”

When the other students were arranging the finished projects for display, they treated my horse as though it were high art in need of special protection. One student came to my desk to check with me to make sure that the way they were handling it was okay. It was the first thing I ever did in school that the other students responded to in a positive way.

It also was the beginning of the feeling, shared by many artists, that our work really wasn’t that good, but only good enough to have fooled a few people for a while into thinking it was – which is how I always feel when people are impressed with something I have created. I always wish it were better. Which leaves me continually trying to make it so.

Maybe that is my artist’s statement. “I’ll try to do better next time.”