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The Back Story: The University Mace

The processional marshal at Saturday's commencement will be wielding the mace — a 12-pound symbolic weapon for defending the university and its people. Read more about the history of the mace's unique design.
UNLV History  |  May 13, 2014  |  By Erin O'Donnell
Editor's Note: 
UNLV's Commencement will be held Saturday, May 16. Join us in congratulating our newest alumni with the hashtag #UNLVGrad on Twitter or our Facebook page. For full ceremony details, visit the commencement website.

The ceremonial maces that today lend authority and gravitas to such formal occasions as commencement descend from an ancient weapon dating back to 12,000 B.C. UNLV's mace is in its infancy by those standards.

The university mace is carried during commencement by the grand marshal, whose symbolic duty is the protection of the university, its people, and its processes.

Mike McCollum, former dean of the College of Fine Arts, cast the mace, but never carried it at graduation himself. "I should have been forced to, as it was quite heavy as I remember," he said of UNLV's 12-pound symbol.

The History

In the early 1970s, UNLV President Roman Zorn tapped art professors Erik Gronborg and McCollum to construct the mace and gave them free rein to design the piece as they saw fit.

The Process

McCollum cast the head of the mace in aluminum using the lost wax process. The cube was sculpted in wax, then invested in a plaster mixture to make a mold. When the mold hardened, it was placed in a kiln for about two days. The wax melted away, and the void was filled with aluminum that had been melted at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It took about a month to complete the wax-to-aluminum process, McCollum said. Gronborg, who crafted the staff from hardwood and stained it black, acknowledged that it wasn't a speedy project. "Art has never been about expediency. It's about exploring and the result."

The Images

Each face of the mace represents some element of education or Nevada. "The different images are meant to symbolize the basic values of a university," Gronborg said. They are:

The hand at the end of the mace was cast from McCollum's own hand. The da Vinci and Statue of Liberty pictures were cast from etched newspaper printing plates. And the books and artists' brushes were cast from real objects. "That gives them a sense of reality," Gronborg said. "The images are more familiar."

The Artists, Then and Now

McCollum had just joined UNLV following grad school when he cast the mace. He went on to become dean of fine arts and retired in 1995. He is now a full-time artist (deepwoodsart.com) in Sequim, Wash. Gronborg, a native of Denmark, taught at UNLV from 1969 to 1973. He became best known for his ceramics and also worked in wood. He taught at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, Calif., from 1975 until his retirement in 2001. He lives in Solana Beach, Calif.