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Alan Marrero stand with his wife, Mary Fialko, in front of the sculptures created by Marrero in their likeness. The life-sized statues, named Ethan
and Violet by the two UC DAAP graduates, are on permanent display in the DAAP building.   Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services

 

When Ethan met Violet

Move over, Ethan. DAAP’s acclaimed life-sized
student-created sculpture gets both a facelift and new
companion, Violet, in a permanent installation that will
stand in the college’s halls as a love story for the ages.

 

by Rachel Richardson
513-556-5219

June 3, 2016

Alan Marrero had no idea of the legacy he’d leave when, on a Sunday morning in the winter of 2005, he stole up a ladder and placed a life-sized sculpture of himself on a high ledge in the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) building.

Marrero, then a senior planning student, created and positioned the statue he dubbed “Ethan” as part of an Installation Art course that required students to create a sculpture and display it for one week in DAAP. He chose the location — 15 feet above the college’s main entryway — for the four distinct vantage points it offered of his artistic doppelganger, who appears to sit hunched in concentration over a laptop.

Since then, Ethan has taken on a life of his own, becoming not only a piece on permanent display in DAAP as part of the University of Cincinnati Fine Arts Collection, but a beloved pop culture icon revered by students, faculty and staff alike.

“Ethan is the patron saint of DAAP,” said Robert Probst, the college’s dean. “He’s a fixture here now.”

This month, Marrero returned to his alma mater — and he wasn’t alone. With him was “Violet,” a life-sized sculpture of another DAAP graduate, Mary Fialko, who married Marrero earlier this year. The true-to-life figure, clad in jeans and a black jacket, sits relaxed in a nearby corner sketching the seemingly oblivious college student, Ethan.

The story of Violet and how she came to join Ethan in the permanent installation is a testament not only to DAAP’s top-ranked design and architecture programs, but to its strong college alumni network that connected two unlikely graduates half a world away in what will stand, at least in the college’s halls, as a love story for the ages.

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Video: Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services


A legend is born

Ethan became the talk of DAAP almost immediately upon its installation.

In perhaps the most oft-told story that has since become a college legend, Jay Chatterjee, a former DAAP dean and then-professor of architecture and planning, spotted what he perceived to be a student foolishly perched high above the busy thoroughfare early the next morning.

“You get down from there right now!” scolded Chatterjee as a crowd quickly formed. When the “student” failed to heed his warnings, Chatterjee marched into the college’s administrative offices nearby.

“I wanted the staff in the office to help get that student down,” the now professor emeritus explained shortly about the incident. “I said, ’There’s this guy up there.’ They then told me to go out and take a second look.”

Chatterjee isn’t the only one to do a double take at the convincing sculpture. Passing students have been heard to question Ethan, “How did you get up there?!”

The artist’s wife, then a student studying architecture, remembers the days following Ethan’s installation. No one seemed quite sure who was behind the rogue art piece, Fialko said, but everyone in DAAP seemed to be talking about it.

“My group of friends always gathered in the lobby area and said, ‘What is that?’” she recalled.  “Everyone was a little thrown off by it at first. I remember not being sure if it was real.”

The creation takes life

For the next several months, Marrero delighted in the startled and puzzled reactions. After graduating from DAAP in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning, life took him first to Romania, where he served in the Peace Corps, then back to Cincinnati and Pennsylvania, where he worked on mosaic projects and public art pieces.

 

A life-sized sculpture of a student is perched on a ledge high above a stairway.

The original Ethan, seen here after its installation in 2005, caused many a passer-by to do a double-take at the seemingly daredevil student perched on a ledge above a DAAP stairway. LIsa Ventre/UC Creative Services

Alan Marrero works on a sculpture in a studio

DAAP graduate Alan Marrero was commissioned by DAAP to redesign Ethan, a sculpture he created in 2005, and create a new sculpture of his wife, Mary Fialko, also a DAAP graduate. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services


Despite his busy schedule, Marrero made time to return to DAAP at least every other year to visit his creation, which quickly seemed to take on a persona of its own.

It wasn’t long before yellow Post-it notes penned by students began to litter the wall beneath the sculpture at the end of each semester, with messages from students pleading for help on finals or offering up quips and witticisms.

Please cancel my 8 a.m. studio. Please, Ethan

Dear Ethan: Please give me the motivation to actually get work done over the Reading Days.

Ethan, wish me luck on getting a co-op!

Dear Ethan: Please deliver unto us free art supplies.

Ethan: Please help calm the fears I have about becoming an unsuccessful artist.

At some point, a typed paper titled “The 7 Edicts of Ethan” appeared taped to the wall below the sculpture, detailing a set of commandments penned by the anonymous “High Priest of Ethan.”  The lighthearted proclamations admonish students to use the college’s Wi-Fi connection responsibly, respect the differences of others and to leave their prayers on non-wall-damaging sticky notes.

 

Post-it notes on wall

Post-it notes from students pleading for help with finals litter the wall below the sculpture of Ethan in the UC DAAP building at the end of every semester.

7 Edicts of Ethan sign taped to wall

A sign entitled "The 7 Edicts of Ethan" is taped to the wall below the sculpture in the UC DAAP building. Since its installation in 2005, Ethan has taken on a persona of his own.

 

Probst said as many as 200 notes are now posted at the end of each semester and even some candle offerings are made in Ethan’s honor.

“It’s become a tradition,” he said about the Post-It prayers. “At the end of every semester we have to clean the stickies off the wall. The students just love him.”

Sleepless in Seattle

Fialko wasn’t looking for love when, on a cold winter’s night in 2009, Marrero sidled up to her on the dance floor at a house party thrown by a mutual friend and fellow DAAP graduate.

Although she had also graduated from DAAP, in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, she and Marrero had never crossed paths on campus. Fialko, in Cincinnati visiting family for the holidays, now called Seattle home after moving there to attend graduate school.

“Alan was trying to ask me questions about my life, and I refused to answer because I literally never thought I’d see him again. I said, ‘Let’s just dance,’” Fialko said with a laugh.

The two parted ways, not making much of the chance encounter. Then, just two months later, they ran into each other again, this time at a bar in Seattle where Marrero had just moved in a sudden decision to pursue professional opportunities.

“It was pretty shocking,” said Fialko. “It was all mutual friends from DAAP who brought us together both times in Cincinnati and Seattle.”

This time, sparks flew. Marrero said he felt drawn to the smart and ambitious blonde-haired beauty who earned graduate degrees in architecture and real estate finance and works as real estate development manager at a commercial firm.

 

 

Alan Marrero pauses to look at the sculptures of Ethan and Violet in a DAAP studio.  Joe Fuqua/UC Creative Services

Alan Marrero pauses to look at the sculptures of Ethan and Violet in a DAAP studio. The DAAP graduate was commissioned by the college to create the installation. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services

Alan Marrero poses with a wax sculpture of his face.

Alan Marrero poses with the wax sculpture made of his face. The artist created the Ethan and Violet sculptures on permanent display in the UC Daap building. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services


Fialko, in turn, was smitten with the genuinely nice guy who showed so much artistic talent, especially in the elaborate and high-end custom light installations he creates as part of his role with Graypants, a Seattle-based studio known for its architectural installations and public artworks.

The two soon began dating, bonding over their experiences as fellow DAAP graduates among a wider circle of mutual friends, many of them also DAAP alumni.

 

Joined together

As the couple made plans for a February 2016 wedding in Seattle, Marrero’s friends back in Cincinnati began hatching a plan to provide Ethan with a companion in Fialko’s likeness.

“One of the ideas we came up with was creating a Mary figure and installing it covertly,” explained friend Adam Gerhardstein. “We thought it would be wonderful for the two of them to be joined together on the shelf as they were joined together in life.”

The plan had just one wrinkle: “We quickly realized that none of us had artistic talent,” Gerhardstein said with a laugh.

Instead, the group began writing letters to DAAP officials, lobbying for a companion for the beloved sculpture. The idea proved an easy sell for Dean Probst.

“Ethan is a talking point for everybody who walks by; he leaves an impression. For me it was important to keep that,” he explained.  “It’s a sculpture with such a human emotional element and people want to interact with it.”

When Marrero returned home in December 2015 to visit family over the holidays, his friends set the the plan in motion during an at-home bachelor party.

The daylong festivities took the group to DAAP, where Marrero's friends surprised him with a letter from the college expressing interest in commissioning the second sculpture.

“He was floored and thought it was the greatest thing ever,” said Gerhardstein.

 

Alan Marrero positions Ethan, a sculpture made in his likeness that's on permanent display in the UC DAAP building.

Alan Marrero positions Ethan, a sculpture made in his likeness, on a high ledge in the UC DAAP building. Marrero first installed Ethan as a student in 2005 and was commissioned in 2016 to upgrade the figure and add a companion. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services

Alan Marrero finds the right position for Violet, a life-sized sculpture of his wife, Mary Fialko. The sculptures of the two DAAP graduates are on permanent display in the UC DAAP building.

Alan Marrero finds the right position for Violet, a life-sized sculpture of his wife, Mary Fialko. The sculptures of the two DAAP graduates are on permanent display in the UC DAAP building. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services


Marrero approached Fialko with the idea: Did she want her likeness preserved at her alma mater for years to come?

“I thought it was awesome,” Fialko said.  “Of course, it was weird. Ethan’s kind of weird in a good way.

But, she added, “I know how excited Alan was to do this, and it makes him feel validated that this senior project idea he had has become such a big thing.”

After meeting with Probst, Marrero quickly drew up a proposal that included not only a new sculpture of Fialko, but also a redesign of Ethan. The original Ethan sculpture, with its face created out of plaster of Paris and body fashioned from chicken wire wrapped around a crude wooden frame, had begun to show its age, he said.

Marrero partnered with KeseyPollack, a Seattle-based interactive design team that creates figurative sculptures made of wax, among other materials, to mold and paint the hyper-realistic faces for the renovated Ethan sculpture and his companion, which Fialko named “Violet.”

Over the course of a week in May, Marrero fashioned new bodies for the two sculptures out of mannequin parts, designed both to make them appear more natural and for durability.

The now-married couple unveiled the permanent installation at a May 27 gathering attended by their friends, family and DAAP faculty and staff.

“I hope that Ethan and Violet last as long as there are students in these halls,” Marrero said, looking up at the sculptures joined together, at last, in the college where it all began.

 

Students look up at the sculptures of Ethan and Violet, positioned on a ledge 15-feet above the main thoroughfare in the UC DAAP building.

Students look up at the sculptures of Ethan and Violet, positioned on a ledge 15-feet above the main thoroughfare in the UC DAAP building. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services

Ethan, a sculpture installed in 2005 by then student Alan Marrero, is joined by Violet, a figure he created in the likeness of his wife, Mary Fialko, also a DAAP graduate.

Ethan, a sculpture installed in 2005 by then student Alan Marrero, is joined by Violet, a figure he created in the likeness of his wife, Mary Fialko, also a DAAP graduate. Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative Services