Plategate: Whose Sower is it

Michigan State Sower: He is grasping his pouch in an underhand position, and the end of the pouch falls out of his hand. Also, his fingers are clearly defined, and his calves are muscular.

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s new license plates share the yellow and blue of the University of Michigan.

Turns out, the plates also may have something in common with Michigan State University: the design of the Sower itself.

Though not identical, both Nebraska and Michigan have sowers created by the same sculptor. Nebraska’s bronze Sower is atop the State Capitol in Lincoln; Michigan’s is a bas-relief sculpture on a bell tower on the Michigan State campus in East Lansing.

Put the two sowers side by side, and it’s hard to miss the similarities between the state’s new license plate and the Michigan State sower.

But the Governor’s Office and Department of Motor Vehicles say the plate is based on Nebraska’s version and represents the bronze statue at the top of the State Capitol.

In fact, DMV Director Rhonda Lahm said in an email that the department was not aware that the Michigan State sower existed until contacted by The World-Herald.

“The image of the Sower on the plate was created from and based on the Sower at the Nebraska State Capitol,” she said.

But several local artists disagree. The plate is not only remarkably similar to the sculpture on Michigan State’s Beaumont Tower, but it is obviously different from Nebraska’s statue, they say.

“It’s unquestionably a rip-off of the Michigan one,” said Tim Guthrie, director of Creighton University’s graphic design program.

Said artist Stephen Roberts, who painted the murals in the State Capitol’s dome, “It’s no question. I think if I was in a court of law, I could prove that pretty easily.”

“The design on the Nebraska plate is not based on our Capitol building,” said Rick Riley, a freelance graphic artist in Omaha. “It’s based on the Beaumont relief.”

Michigan State’s sower was installed for the bell tower’s 1929 dedication. Nebraska’s Sower went up the next year. Both were created by sculptor Lee Lawrie.

The local artists say the most distinguishing feature is the way the Sower’s hand is gripping the pouch.

For the State Capitol sculpture, the back of the Sower’s hand is clearly visible. But the plate looks more like the bas-relief sculpture on the Beaumont Tower, which depicts the sower grasping the bag with his fingers visible.

“That’s an actual technical detail,” Roberts said. “It’s not whether it’s distorted. It’s not drawn as the (Nebraska) sculpture is — it’s drawn as Michigan’s relief sculpture.”

Another telling detail: On both the plate and the Michigan State sower, the end of the pouch extends beyond the sower’s hand. But on the State Capitol, the Sower is cupping the end of the pouch.

In addition, the license plate and Michigan State’s carving have virtually the same proportions. And in both images, the sower’s calves are prominently defined.

Perhaps the only part of the license plate image derived from Nebraska’s Sower is the head, Roberts and the other artists said. Both share an angle and detailing unlike Michigan’s version.

“It’s so painfully obvious that whoever did it just did a Google search, found that image and essentially traced it. It’s obviously the Michigan thing — it’s not the Lincoln one,” Guthrie said.

The new design has generated controversy since Gov. Pete Ricketts unveiled it last week. Initially, concern swirled that the design was dull and that the image of the Sower, as designed, carries a sexual connotation.

Others praised the plate for representing the navy blue and gold colors of the Nebraska state flag and for its clean design, which will allow law enforcement to easily read the license plate number.

Meanwhile, state officials say the plate design is final. Printing of the new plates is already in progress and has been for more than a week, Lahm said Wednesday.

The new plates will roll out in January 2017, replacing the plates featuring a goldenrod sprig and meadowlark, the state flower and state bird. The DMV estimates that more than five million plates featuring the Sower will be made.

Earlier this week, Ricketts defended the plate’s design, saying the Sower is uniquely Nebraskan. “That is a symbol that is unique to Nebraska that celebrates our agricultural heritage, sowing the seeds of life,” he said, during a press conference on an unrelated topic. “It’s all very positive imagery there.”

The governor also acknowledged that it’s difficult to translate a three-dimensional sculpture to a two-dimensional license plate.

This is the first Nebraska plate to feature the Sower. The concept came from a previous license plate contest for which the public submitted suggestions. The plates were created by DMV staff and graphic design personnel from vendor 3M under an existing contract with the state.

Ricketts gave the final OK.

“I think the folks in the DMV and, with the contractor, they did a fine job of trying to capture the spirit of the Sower there,” Ricketts said.

But Roberts and others don’t buy it. He said the state’s plate should be historically accurate and resemble Nebraska’s Sower — not another state’s version.

“It’s just an error,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, emily.nohr@owh.com

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