Office Artifact: Christian Wheeler’s Bronze Desktop Sculpture

A one-of-a-kind gift evokes lessons learned at an eclectic bookstore.

September 10, 2021

Christian Wheeler holding his bronze desk sculpture. Credit: Elena Zhukova

Christian Wheeler first saw this piece of art at one of his favorite hangouts in Omaha. | Elena Zhukova

It’s a one-of-a-kind piece made by an Omaha artist by the name of Bill Farmer. It’s a bronze sculpture with four people seated in front of walls that expand in size as you move from left to right. The fourth wall has a hole in it, a circle cut out of it. The text on the walls reads, “Enlarging one’s perspective. Graduation. There’s a hole in that theory.”

Editor’s Note

In this series for Stanford Business magazine, we visit Stanford GSB professors’ offices and ask them to share the stories behind one of the favorite knickknacks.

S. Christian Wheeler is The StrataCom Professor of Management and Professor of Marketing at Stanford GSB.

It was given to me by Tom Rudloff, who was owner of the Antiquarium, a multi-floor bookstore-slash-art-gallery-slash-record-store. The top floor housed a large portion of Farmer’s work on permanent display. I had seen that piece there, and Tom gave it to me when I graduated with my PhD from Ohio State.

Growing up, I killed many hours hanging around that bookstore. Basically, anyone who lived around Omaha and had vaguely countercultural leanings spent a ton of time there. It was a real institution for a lot of people, and for me in particular. They had coffee pots and chess tables in the back and easy chairs in the front. Downstairs was the record store. People would just mill around and browse books, talk politics. There were a lot of characters there. You got exposed to a lot of different perspectives.

For me, Tom treated it like a lending library. He just handed me books. He gave me reading lists and piles of books and sent me on my way. I kept in touch with Tom and always returned to the bookstore whenever I was home. He passed away a number of years ago.

Historically, my research has been on attitudes and persuasion and also on the self-concept. A recent paper of mine discussed how objects can be imbued with meaning and reinforce identity. Right now I’m working on a project on how we view people who are receptive or unreceptive to ideas that are at odds with our own.

When I started out as a researcher, I was very directed — I was on a single path. But these days a lot of my work is inspired by thoughts that students have when they come to me. A nice thing about having tenure is that you can explore different areas a little more freely. You get a larger perspective.

I never met Bill Farmer, so I don’t know exactly what he intended by the sculpture. Maybe it says something about the process of learning and the role that formal education plays. I certainly learned a lot at that bookstore.

One of the things I think about when I see that sculpture is the role formal and informal educational institutions play in people’s lives. That bookstore created an orientation toward learning that I’ve carried throughout my life. It serves as a reminder of where I came from. I think that’s important to hold onto.

—Told to Dave Gilson

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