Sunday, July 10, 2011

Public art celebrates creativity and innovation and heritage and open minds

"Triangle" by Kirsten Kokkin in Loveland, Colo.
Public art can become a very personal thing.

I work in the arts, so know how one little statue can blow up into a huge controversy.

Today's Denver Post explored that city's public art program, and similar programs in Loveland, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. The Denver percent for art program has been in place since 1977, which gives the city 34 years of perspective on art in the public eye. The most recent controversy raged around the bucking mustang sculpture with the crazy eyes that greets motorists at DIA. As many of you know, this is the sculpture that killed its creator. I'm not being facetious. The sculpture-in-progress fell on New Mexico artist Luis Jiminez and killed him. Now many Coloradans consider it cursed. Its nicknames include "Blucifer" and "Satan's Steed." The mustang is now legend.

To Denver's credit, its program mandates that an artwork stays up for five years once it's installed. The work passes through a review process before it's made and installed. It's not cheap to install a 32-foot horse along a public roadway. You don't want to take it down and put it back up every few months.

And then there's naked people. Loveland, epicenter of public sculpture, installed a bronze called "Triangle" by Kirsten Kokkin at a major intersection. It features three naked humans forming a triangle, thus the piece's name. My fear would have been that every teen boy in town would be climbing the sculpture searching for the naughty bits. But who needs sculpture when teen boys can prowl live sex sites via their home computer?

The "Triangle" artist has obviously studied the human form with the same attention to detail that motivated Michelangelo. I'm often amazed that people continue to care about putting sculptures in the parks and along their roads. But they do. And as in Michelangelo's time, public patrons provide the impetus and funding to do so. There may be some tussles along the way, but once a public work of art catches hold, it becomes a landmark. Witness downtown Denver's Big Blue Bear sculpture by Lawrence Argent. Witness the Lane Frost sculpture at Cheyenne's CFD Old West Museum. Witness the Chief Washakie sculpture in front of the Washakie Dining Hall at UW in Laramie. Witness Robert Russin's Abraham Lincoln head at welcome center on I-80 celebrating The Lincoln Highway. Witness the UW Art Museum and its "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" with its many innovative works. Some of those sculptures were not meant to last, as in Patrick Dougherty's sculpture made of locally harvested saplings. Witness the entire city of Loveland, Colo., once a sleepy enclave between Denver and Fort Collins, home to commuters and retirees, to a lively city filled with sculptures and international sculpture shows (coming up in August).

Patrick Dougherty, "Short Cut," 2008
Many Wyoming cities have gone gaga over sculpture. Every corner in Sheridan's historic downtown features a work of art. Gillette has an Avenue of Sculpture. Cheyenne is planning the same thing along Capitol Avenue between the State Capitol and the Historic Train Depot. The newly renovated Capitol Plaza features statues of suffragist Esther Hobart Morris and Shoshone leader Chief Washakie. Across the street on the grounds of the Wyoming Arts Council, a sculpture of iconic Western artist William Gollings paints the scene (his painting of the Capitol is on the wall inside the building). At the other end of the street, a new sculpture of a pioneer woman carrying a valise and disembarking from a train celebrates Wyoming's "Equality State" moniker. In Wyoming, "Equality State" is always a work in progress.

That's also true for public art. Always a work in progress. New work goes up to admire and gawk at and maybe even complain about.

From May through October, tourist buses arrive daily in downtown Cheyenne. Groups of Japanese and Russians and Chinese tourists swarm over the Capitol grounds. They take each other's pictures by the Bison and by Esther and by the cowboy on the bucking bronco. They might go into the Capitol (if it's open) but time is short and they need some memories of their travels. Artwork on the Capitol grounds provides that.

Some of our legislators and public servants feel that art is a frill, that it provides no real benefit to Wyomingites and to the tourists that stoke the state's number two industry.

Buffalo soldier statue near Warren AFB in Cheyenne (USAF photo)
These people are short-sighted and possibly blinded by Tea Party rhetoric. The Governor of Kansas was so blinded by it that he eliminated the state arts council. Others, such as the Governor of Maine, banish works of art that they don't agree with. This negates one of the main goals of public art, which is to get the viewer to think about the site's culture and heritage. A mural of union workers can do that (although people in Maine have been spared that experience). A statue of a mountain lion can do that, as will the new sculpture at the Wyoming Vistitors' Center on I-90 near Hulett. The statue and commemorative plaques celebrating the buffalo soldier near Warren AFB's main gate opens up a new chapter in frontier and African-American history. Some of these soldiers came out West post-slavery to find more opportunities and less prejudice. It also brings up the fact that the U.S. military was officially desegregated by Pres. Truman in 1948, way before schools and businesses and transportation and your local Woolworth's counter.

It's tough to keep an open mind in these most close-minded of times. But our future depends on it.

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