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Reaping What the Nebraska DMV Sows

Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles Director Rhonda Lahm poses next to a design for the state'’s new standard license plate at a news conference March 22, 2016 at the Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Anna Gronewold)

Nebraska’s 2017 vehicle license plate was called everything from “obnoxious” to “boring” to “almost sexual” to even “sexually suggestive” in an informal survey of Omaha residents by WOWT-TV.

The host of Comedy Central’s @midnight show, Chris Hardwick, derided the use of the Myriad Pro Black font on the license plate as cliche and unimaginative.

More to the point, Hardwick said the drawing of Nebraska’s Sower — the guy with what is supposed to be a bag of grain hooked to the front of his pants — looked like a “muscular Quaker jerking off on a cupcake.”

Jeff Koterba, a World-Herald cartoonist, wrote that he thought that Sower “instead of the graceful statue created by Lee Lawrie — who also created Atlas in New York’s Rockefeller Center — looks more like an ape.”

However, not everyone in Nebraska hated it.

“People can say what they want about the image and what it looks like — some guy pulling his pants open, you know, whatever happening downstairs. … At the same time, it’s a very highly recognized symbol for the residents of Nebraska,” Joel Damon, co-founder and curator of a contemporary art space in Omaha said. “It’s just a poorly designed plate. The end.”

There were even some voices raised in praise of the 2017 plate.

“I think it’s necessary that it’s a little bit bolder than the actual sculpture itself because then it stands out on the plate … the real sculpture is a little bit more elongated, more slender,” Omaha sculptor John Lajba told the World-Herald. This one is a little bit more muscular, but it’s still inspired by the Sower. … I actually like it.”

Still, even the artist who submitted the sketch for the DMV’s consideration said he made a mistake. Jeff Heldt said it was an artistic fumble because he kind of blended two Sowers together.

The drawing includes elements of a Sower sculpture on a bell tower at Michigan State University, which of course is not Nebraska.

Heldt told the World-Herald he recognized the license plate immediately as a drawing he had submitted to Nebraska officials in 2002 for a design contest to create the state’s 2005 license plate.

The response 14 years ago, he said, was “thanks, but no thanks.”

Then came the day when he saw the 2017 sesquicentennial plate.

Heldt’s first reaction was, “It’s mine.” But then, he realized, “it’s a mistake.”

Heldt said the Sower on the trashed 2017 Nebraska plate, his creation, is actually a hybrid Sower. He found a drawing of a Sower on Google, and without realizing it was a sculpture from MSU, used it as a template for the body of his Sower, and put the Nebraska Sower’s head on top.

“To be completely honest,” he said, “I never knew the relief wasn’t from the State Capitol building until the controversy over these new plates began boiling over. I assumed it was on the building somewhere. Yes, I failed as a lifelong Nebraskan.”

License Plate-Gate is a scandal that has rocked Nebraska to its Cornhusker core. After all, this was no throwaway license plate. It was meant to commemorate Nebraska’s 150th sesquicentennial anniversary, which is truly a one-time opportunity.

Putting the Sower on the plate would seem like a no-brainer. It is an iconic landmark in the Cornhusker State.

The Sower sits on top of the 400-foot tower of the State Capitol, and according to state literature, is doing more than throwing seeds out of a bag. The Sower is “casting life to the winds,” demonstrating “the traditional method of hand sowing grain for planting.”

“The monumental sculpture, with its 12 and 1/2 foot pedestal of shocks of wheat and corn and 19 1/2 foot tall figure, was created by New York sculptor, Lee Lawrie,” according to the official state description of the Sower. “Lawrie represents this timeless symbol of Agriculture as a barefoot man, shirt sleeves and pant legs rolled up as he works, wearing a sun hood. The 3/8 inch thick bronze sculpture is reinforced by an interior steel framework and weighs nearly 9 1/2 tons.”

So, the Sower is a big part of what makes Nebraska Nebraska. What went wrong?

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) admitted state officials just did not spend enough time reviewing the design.  But a spokesman for the governor, Taylor Gage, said Ricketts appreciated Heldt’s honesty in admitting how he created the Sower-creature.

“It is important the Sower on the plate accurately represents the sculpture sitting on top of the State Capitol,” Gage said.

So, what’s Plan B? There has to be one. Sen. Burke Harr (D) has introduced a legislative amendment to force a delay in the creation of the state’s sesquicentennial license plate to make sure they come up with a better idea.

Rhonda Lahm, the director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, said her people will work on coming up with a “more accurate” drawing of the Sower. Production of the sesquicentennial plates will stop until that’s accomplished.

But maybe Nebraska doesn’t need a drawing of the Sower of its vehicle license plates.

One woman suggested to a WOWT-TV reporter a better idea than a sketch of the Sower would be to focus “on what we really love here — football.”