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'Remembered': Memorializing NIU's tragedy

NIU alumnus and artist Bruce Niemi attaches a chain to help raise a sculpture of his titled "Remembered" in front of Cole Hall on Thursday morning.
NIU alumnus and artist Bruce Niemi attaches a chain to help raise a sculpture of his titled "Remembered" in front of Cole Hall on Thursday morning.

DeKALB – After the shootings at Northern Illinois University on Feb. 14, 2008, Bruce Niemi immediately started thinking about ways he could memorialize the five students who were killed.

This was long before NIU would officially consider ideas and concepts from sculpture artists throughout the country, but that didn't stop the Wisconsin artist from thinking about it. And in the 20 months since the shootings, he's gone from an artist with ideas to the winning suitor in the university's search for an appropriate artist and design to complement the memorial garden outside Cole Hall.

Niemi's piece, titled "Remembered," was installed Thursday, bringing completion to a memorial months in the making. The road from concept to reality was a long one, with Niemi and NIU representatives working to arrive at a shared vision for an appropriate memorial piece.

Mallorie Simpson, president of NIU Foundation, was a member of NIU committees charged with finding the right artist and design for the job. Artists were invited to submit original designs last winter, with a final decision coming last spring.

"People did a beautiful job and put their hearts into the project," Simpson said. "[We needed] something that suited the landscape design, something that captured the emotion and had some symbolism to it of those lives lost."

All the final pieces they considered were quite different, Simpson said, but Niemi's piece really stood out.

Jeff Daurer, NIU's director of capital budget and planning, worked with Niemi as project manager on NIU's side. For him, too, Niemi was a natural choice.

"When you see the piece, you'll know and feel that it was the right choice," Daurer said. "I've come to know [Bruce] well, and he's a man of character. You can tell that he is putting his heart into the piece, and he's giving a piece of himself to campus."

The artistic process

"It was kind of a natural thing," Niemi said of his interest in doing something for the university, his own alma mater. "The fact that it's what I do for a living for one, but it's my school and that was a big part of my life."

Niemi sees his artistic ability as his gift from God, and wanted the chance to use that gift in an effort to help people, especially the families of those who were killed.

"One of the main things was to help out the parents," he said. "The parents were what were on my mind. That's one of the main things: What can I do to help them with this piece of art?"

His process also is guided by his faith in God.

"Whenever I do a piece I pray first; and if I don't, nothing happens," he said. "When I pray, I ask God to give me direction and imagination and thought and things just start happening when I do that. Sometimes it's not immediate ... but it's amazing how things can just fall together."

This piece required a great deal of consideration about who this piece is meant to serve.

"You always have to take into factor, what's the piece for?" he said. "This had a meaning behind it. It's a memorial, so we do remember those students that were there. You have to think in that direction as opposed to something just aesthetically beautiful, just to occupy the space."

Whatever the piece, though, Niemi said he wants his work to bring people up. In that respect, the NIU sculpture was not too different from any work he does.

"When I create a work, I try to make it be positive and uplifting," he said. "No matter how bad things are, there's always something good that can come out of it. I hope people can walk away with this with a feeling of calmness and piece of mind."

The process was not without its challenges.

"When I'm working on a project like this, it's an emotional thing because your emotions get into it," Niemi said. "You start thinking, 'What could this have done? How would this affect the family?' The struggle here is really hoping that when the families see this, that they will be moved in a positive way."

But anything worth its challenges also offers rewards.

"First off, it's rewarding because it's such an honor to be chosen to do this," he said. "As terrible as this was, to be chosen to be the one to honor that is a big honor, and it's humbling. There's a lot of really great artists that came out of Northern, so to be chosen to do this is a great honor."


Niemi's sculpture, "Remembered," took its place in the ground Thursday morning outside Cole Hall. There was a palpable sigh of relief upon getting this piece in the ground, Niemi said, describing these final steps as an exciting finish to an arduous process.

"The process of taking it off the trailer and the process of seeing it tilted up ... there's a lot of adrenaline going on," he said. "It's got a power to it. It's got energy."

And it brought a degree of closure to NIU, as well.

"It's a project I would have preferred to have never had to have done," Daurer said. "But I'm proud that we've been able to come through with an appropriate memorial for our students."