Troy University’s army of art

Troy's terra-cotta warriors are drawing international attention

Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins with some of the university’s terra-cotta warriors. Photo by Julie Bennett.

When Jack Hawkins became chancellor at Troy University in 1989, there were about 40 international students on campus. Now, more than 30 years later, there are more than 1,000 from some 60 different countries.

That growth has not been an accident. Hawkins and others at Troy have established strategic partnerships around the world to make Troy a more international campus.

And one of those partnerships is why you’ll find about 150 replicas of Chinese terra-cotta warriors, strategically placed in locations around Troy’s Janice Hawkins Cultural Arts Park.

It started in 2000, when Hawkins and a delegation took a whirlwind trip to China to establish a partnership with universities in that country. While in Xi’an, an artist named Huo Bao Zhu met with Hawkins.

“I went to this man’s studio and was fascinated by the quality of work,” Hawkins recalls. “He was commissioned by people all over the world to do sculptures.”

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It turns out Huo had life-saving surgery at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, and he had been looking for a way to give back to the U.S., a country he loved. Huo had created a small replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and Hawkins told him they’d love to have a larger version on campus.

“He said, ‘I’ll do that and I’ll send it to you,’” Hawkins says with a laugh. “What he didn’t tell me was it weighed two tons. Almost overnight, we had to raise about $50,000 for the granite base for it to sit on. It’s still on campus.”

Huo visited Troy, and “the longer he stayed, the more generous he became,” Hawkins says.

That led to four statues of Trojans – Troy’s mascot — around campus, among other statues. Hawkins estimates Huo gave the university $3.5 million to $4 million in art before he died three years ago.

But the centerpieces of that collection are the terra-cotta warriors, which came after Huo was presented an honorary doctorate in 2014. “With tears running down his face as he accepted it, he said his parents would never believe that an American university would present him with such an honor,” Hawkins recalls. “In their memory, he wanted to give us reproductions of the 200 terra-cotta warriors that stand in Xi’an.” The original terra-cotta warrior sculptures, about 2,000 years old, were unearthed in March 1974 near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of China.

The terra-cotta warriors are placed in groups around the cultural arts park. Photo by Julie Bennett.

Huo’s replica warriors found a home in 2016 at Troy’s new Janice Hawkins Cultural Arts Park and its International Arts Center. Since then, more than 10,000 people a year have visited the collection, the largest terra-cotta warriors exhibit outside of Xi’an.

Huo’s original sculptures were actual terra cotta, a mix of clay and sand that deteriorates quickly in Alabama’s climate. “After the warriors had sat out in the weather, the clay was breaking down,” Hawkins says. So in 2020, the original reproductions were replaced with replicas made of a more durable, concrete-like substance. “Those warriors will still be standing out there 50 years from now,” the chancellor says.

Huo died in 2019, a year before the replicas were replaced. “The last thing he told me was that he wanted to get better so he could come back to Troy and be an artist-in-residence,” Hawkins says. “Just four days later, he passed away. But he was fully in support of what we were doing.”

The warriors are now a focal point of Troy’s campus. Students study them, and visitors from around the world come to see them. Recently, Troy and its collection were featured on a popular Chinese TV series. “About 250 million were reported to have watched that program in China,” Hawkins says.

That’s important to Hawkins, who has overseen Troy’s transformation into an international university.

“One of our objectives is to bring the world to Troy,” he says.

Cultural Arts Park. Photo by Julie Bennett.

A center for the arts

Troy’s International Arts Center, which sits in the university’s Cultural Arts Park, has Janice Hawkins, the chancellor’s wife, to thank for its existence.

“We tore down a men’s dormitory and in its place built the Ritz-Carlton of all dormitories,” Jack Hawkins says. “That dormitory, Rushing Hall, is next door to where the dining hall stands.”

Janice Hawkins was there after the new dorm was built and overheard an architect suggesting the next project be to tear down the dining hall and create a parking lot.

“She looked at them and said, ‘Over my dead body,’ then put a finger on my chest and said, ‘and his, too,’” Hawkins says.

The result?

“We didn’t take that building down,” he says. “We invested several million dollars into it.”

And that building, which includes a gallery of work by the artist Nall, some more of Huo’s artwork and other exhibits, has become a showplace.

“It has turned into the front door of the campus,” Hawkins says.

Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Julie Bennett is an Auburn-based freelance contributor.

This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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