Single Bullet Hole in Don Drumm Sculpture Sheds Light on Events of May 4

May 4, 2020

Don Drumm is known for his signature aluminum-cast art, from towering totems to palm-sized pieces, many featuring his iconic sun design. Drumm’s art is all over the world, but one sculpture from his early career is on Kent State’s campus. It figures prominently in the May 4 shootings.

Not far from the granite structures and the daffodil meadow that mark Kent State University’s May 4 Memorial is a 15-foot steel sculpture.

Don Drumm’s "Solar Totem Number 1" features steel plates that rise to the sky – and a single bullet hole.

“Sometimes they put little stones up by it," he said. "Sometimes they take a piece of chalk and circle the hole.”

The sculpture was part of a summer project to enhance creativity for industrial design high school teachers. Drumm had led the creation and installation of the piece near Taylor Hall in 1967 as artist-in-residence at Bowling Green State University.

When Drumm learned the sculpture had been shot on May 4, 1970, he had one request:

“Let my sculpture be its own memorial. Don’t let them ever weld this hole, and let it be the memorial.”

A sculpture by artist and Kent State alumnus Don Drumm was pierced by a bullet on May 4, 1970.
Credit DON DRUMM STUDIOS

In the aftermath of the shootings, the Akron Beacon Journal had a request for Drumm. He got a call from staff photographer Bill Hunter. 

“He asked me if I would go down to campus. I said 'Yes, I will go down,'" Drumm said. "He said, 'It’s been pierced by a bullet. You need to see if you can tell which way the bullet came from.'"  

Drumm sculpts almost exclusively in metal, making him somewhat of an expert.

The newspaper wanted to get to the bottom of a rumor that was circulating, and one still deliberated today. Had a sniper fired at the guard first, kicking off the assault that killed the students?     

Drumm is a graduate of Kent's Fine Arts Program. He wanted answers, too. So just three days after the shootings he met a team from the Akron Beacon Journal on campus.

“The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day, and there was blood where the student was shot standing next to the sculpture," Drumm said. "I was teary-eyed. This is my school. I’d prefer that all the bullet holes go in the sculpture, not the kids."

Those gathered carefully analyzed the bullet hole. News clips from the Akron Beacon Journal show Drumm viewing the hole using a magnifying glass.

"When I looked at the hole at the sculpture, the hole toward the guard was splayed out. Little fragments were sticking out the side of it," he said. "When I went around the backside, the hole was concave."

Drumm’s frame of reference was drilling metal.

“Now, when you drill a piece of metal, generally the drill bit enters and starts as a concave shape,” he said. 

Students memorialize those who were killed on May 4 with candles, flowers and messages placed on artist Don Drumm's sculpture.
Credit KENT STATE UNIVERSITY NEWS SERVICE MAY 4 PHOTOGRAPHS / KENT STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES

But something entirely different happens when it’s hit with a bullet.

“Well, I don’t know anything about ballistics, but I secured a piece of steel that I had laying around the same thickness and took it with me just in case,” Drumm said.

Using the steel, the men worked to recreate the scene from campus with the help of a Kent State professor who had a military background.  

"He secured weaponry the same as the guards were carrying, and we went out to a farm near there that he had," Drumm said. "We took the piece of steel, and I said, 'Wait a minute. I want to mark it with a felt pen because in case it flips or something, I’ll know which was the entry hole.'"

With the scene set, the weapon was fired. The shot created fragments on entry, and the exit hole was concave.

“The bullet entered so fast with such velocity that it pushed metal out in front of it and sucked metal out the back and made a concave shape,  showing that it came from the guard," Drumm said. 

Like many of the events surrounding May 4, why the National Guard fired is unclear.

But each year in May, Drumm’s Solar Totem Number 1 sculpture is decorated with candles, messages and sometimes daffodils picked from the nearby field, honoring those killed in Vietnam.

In the weeks following May 4, Drumm created his own tribute to the tragedy. His 14-foot steel sculpture “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is made from the same steel he used for Solar Totem Number 1.

The sculpture stands on the Bowling Green State University campus, paying tribute to the four students who died in Kent, and to two students killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi just 11 days after the Kent shootings.

Don Drumm's tribute to May 4, "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," is on the Bowling Green State University campus.
Credit BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY