The Curious Case Of The Deer On The Bridge

When Kish and I walked to Franklinton on Sunday, we crossed the Scioto River on the Town Street bridge. Just after the midpoint of the bridge we found this life-sized metal sculpture of a fully antlered buck standing upright at the railing of the bridge, facing north.

It’s a fine rendition of a deer. But the sculpture raises so many questions that it’s almost a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Why is there a sculpture of a deer standing on its hind legs on a downtown bridge in Columbus, Ohio?

Is the deer just enjoying a nice view of the Columbus skyline and the Scioto River in its new channel? Or is the trophy buck using the vantage point of the bridge to scan for hunters or predators? On the darker side, could the deer be depressed and preparing to jump? Is there some deep significance to the fact that the deer is facing north, or that it is a stag rather than a doe? For that matter, why a deer at all? I can’t think of any special connection between Ohio’s capital city and deer. If a wolverine were preparing to hurl itself into oblivion at the sight of Columbus, in contrast, it would be understandable.

Experts will tell you that a good test of public art is whether it provokes thought and discussion. By that standard, the curious case of the deer on the bridge is a great success. And for that same reason, I’m not going to even try to scan the internet for an explanation. I’m just going to leave it a mystery.

The Horse Head Rorschach Test

Every day, the pleasant burghers of Bensalem, Pennsylvania who drive past the Parx Casino and Racing complex are confronted by this gigantic sculpture of a horse’s head precariously balanced on the tip of its nose, which is placed out in front of the casino right next to the road.  

It’s a fine rendering of a horse’s head, as horse head sculptures go — but what do you think of when you see an enormous horse head on your drive to pick up Krispy Kreme donuts? Do you focus on the fact that the head is severed, and think of The Godfather?  Or do you, like the animal-loving Marquette Warrior, conclude that the horse is happily taking a drink of water?  Do you wonder how, from an engineering standpoint, they got the massive structure to balance like that?  Or, do you focus on the totally discordant, out-of-place element of a huge green horse head on an otherwise undistinguished, soulless suburban commercial strip, and idly wonder if it was left by aliens?

In such ways does public art challenge us.

En Plein Air

IMG_5281Yesterday I met Kish for lunch at Little Palace then took a slightly different path on my walk back to the office.  After I crossed Broad Street, heading north on Fourth Street, I noticed the painting above on one of the pillars at the entrance to the building at 23 North Fourth.

I’d never walked this side of the block before, and the painting drew my eye.  It’s a small painting of street scene featuring a nearby building in downtown Columbus; a simple, human-scale piece rather than one of those gigantic abstract urban art sculptures that city planners decide to place next to a busy intersection or in the plaza of an office building.  I noticed a sign next to the painting that said it was a plein air piece in acrylics by artist Deb Haller that was part of the Finding Time project by Columbus Public Art 2012.

After stopping to admire the painting I moved on, then noticed another of the paintings in Lynn alley on the block between Fourth Street and Lazelle, and another piece on a wall of a building on Lazelle between Lynn and Gay Street.  The latter, by artist Susan Otten, is shown below.  I enjoyed them all, and wondered:  how had I missed them before?

When I got home I checked the internet and learned that the paintings I saw were among 20 different plein air paintings in the downtown area commissioned as part of the Columbus Public Art 2012 Finding Time project.  The website explains that the paintings “were meant to be discovered by pedestrians going about their everyday business.”  Speaking for this pedestrian, I would say “mission accomplished.”


Wally The Walleye

At one of the corners of the main intersection in Vermilion, Ohio, you will find Wally The Walleye. Wally is a good-sized metal sculpture that appears to be anatomically accurate –he’s even got a lure in his mouth — but rather than standard scales he’s got fish representations on his shiny skin.

Wally is part of the “Follow The Fish” Art and Adventure Trail along Lake Erie. He was sponsored by the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. As is the case with so much public art, Wally adds a very nice and distinctive touch to his little corner of the world. The Follow The Fish Trail is a cool idea.

At The Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Memorial

IMG_6154Earlier this month, the newest memorial on the Ohio Statehouse grounds was dedicated.  Located on the State Street side, it is a memorial to the millions who died during the Holocaust — and to the soldiers who helped to liberate them.

The memorial is The Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial.  It consists of two massive steel and bronze pieces that fit together to leave a symbolic empty space in the shape of the Star of David; the pieces are engraved with statements about the Holocaust.  A granite walkway leads up to the memorial, bordered by a low limestone wall that reads:  “Inspired by the Ohio Soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and Survivors who made Ohio their home” and adds, “If You Save One Life, It Is As If You Saved The World.”

The holocaust memorial is a worthy addition to the wide array of public art on the Statehouse grounds.  May we always be reminded, and may we never forget.


Art Of The Inexplicable

I like some public art and I dislike other public art — but at least I can usually understand what the art is attempting to convey.  No more!  A new bit of public art in Columbus has me stumped.

It’s the creation of a Brooklyn artist named Janet Zweig, and it appears on a wall behind the Key Bank building in downtown Columbus.  It’s a series of unadorned words on an otherwise blank wall.  The first five words were selected by Zweig, they were “Columbus never came here, but . . . ”  Every two weeks or so, new words, suggested by Columbus residents and visitors and chosen by Zweig and curators of the piece, have been added to the wall.  A statement accompanying the piece explains:  “Generative text can tap into an unconscious that often discovers hidden, insightful, poetic, and sometimes humorous truths.”  The new words are selected in an attempt to shift the meaning of the words, and the stated “goal is to change the meaning of the sentence (or sentences) each time a new section is added, in an attempt ultimately to capture the soul of Columbus, as described by its residents.”

I’m not sure words on a wall could ever “capture the soul of Columbus,” but if these words have done so Columbus must have the soul of bathroom graffitist or an adolescent who thinks “Mad Libs” are hilarious.  Does anyone from Columbus actually think this piece reflects well on our fair city?

Enough, Already!

Walking the streets of downtown Cleveland today, I saw . . . painted electric guitars at various locations on the sidewalks, each with a theme that supposedly celebrates something about Cleveland.  Get it?  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, electric guitars?

Gahhh!  Hasn’t this whole concept been beaten to death, long ago?  I’ve seen painted cows in Chicago, painted pigs in Cincinnati . . . and I’m sure that countless other boring, copycat cities have made their own unimaginative forays into public art, where some local iconic symbol gets painted in different ways by local artists, and we’re supposed to appreciate what it says about the city in question.

C’mon, Cleveland — you’re better than this! Why copy cities like Chicago and Cincinnati, for God’s sake?  Have some self-respect, and buck the derivative trend!  Recognize that Cleveland is a leader, not a follower.  If you want to do some public art, come up with something original and unique, as befits Cleveland’s rich heritage as a trendsetter, not a camp follower.

In the meantime, can somebody do something with these silly painted electric guitars?  They’re cluttering up the sidewalks.

The Arnold At The Arnold

Columbus has a new statue, and it’s a whopper.

Yesterday — with the Arnold Sports Festival in full swing — the City dedicated this colossal rendering of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It’s located outside the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, where many of the Arnold events are held, just across the river from downtown Columbus.

The statue is a depiction of Arnold in his full Mr. Olympia glory — huge fists clenched, muscles bulging, rope-like veins popping everywhere, face set in impassive concentration, in the pose that Arnold made famous.  It is somewhat larger than life, although still smaller than the statue of Christopher Columbus in front of City Hall.  I suppose that’s only appropriate, although if you took a vote of the people who are in Columbus right now, Arnold would easily outpoll Chris for the top spot in the Most Titanic Figure contest.

The statue has a pretty good likeness of Arnold’s face, which is why it inevitably brings to mind — uncomfortably, in my book — the Terminator movies.  I look at the statue and expect the metallic Arnold to turn his head slowly, focus with a red mechanical eye, then step off the pedestal and begin slaughtering the masses in his search for Sarah Connor.

Modern Art Along The Scioto Mile

Columbus wants to complete its Scioto Mile Park with a monumental sculpture.  The plan is to add a large piece of artwork along the riverfront that will become as identifiable with Columbus as the Gateway Arch is with St. Louis and the Space Needle is with Seattle.

The proposed piece would be abstract, six stories tall, made of reflective metal, and shaped like . . . the cooling tower of a nuclear plant.  Not surprisingly, some people are questioning that design.

I like the idea of putting a large piece of public art along the Scioto Mile.  I think it should be a bold statement, not some timid, compromise product of a committee.  We don’t need another realistic sculpture like the big statue of Christopher Columbus in front of City Hall.  I’m not sure how I feel about the “cooling tower” design — it seems like the shape is so defined with nuclear plants that viewers won’t really see or think of anything else — but I’m willing to reserve judgment if that is the piece that is selected.

Anyone who has been to Millennium Park in Chicago knows that people are attracted to large, memorable public art pieces like “the Bean.”  If the “cooling tower” is interesting, fun to look at, well made, and allows for interesting photo opportunities, people will go see it — and that, after all, is the idea.

Mosquito In Our Midst

I’m all for public art, but I found this piece unappealing.  Called “ShutterBug,” and created by PR Miller, it can be found perched on its long, spindly legs on a street corner next to a parking lot in downtown Canton, Ohio.  It looks like a mosquito rising from a fetid pool of water, ready to slake its thirst for blood.  Just looking at it made me want to slap the back of my neck.

Cleveland’s Free Stamp

Another piece of modern public art that I really like is Free Stamp, a large painted steel and aluminum sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.  For years, Free Stamp has graced a small park along East Ninth Street in Cleveland, just south of the expressway that separates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum from the rest of downtown.

Why do I like Free Stamp?  Because this is a whimsical sculpture that will inevitably grow more interesting as time goes by.  When the sculpture was created, paper was the preferred medium of business, and ink pads and stamps that said things like “Paid” and “Handle with Care” were used routinely.  Of course, in the business world you wouldn’t need a stamp that said “Free,” so the sculpture was a bit of a joke.  But now, as paper has gone the way of the Dodo and electronic transmissions are in vogue, I doubt that any business buys or even uses stamps anymore.  And that is what will make this sculpture even more interesting in years to come.  What will people who grow up in the age of email and the cloud, and in the ages of even more advanced communications forms to come, think when they see this giant sculpture, and will they even dimly understand what it is supposed to be?

Best Modern Public Art Ever

I love public art, but I’m not a huge fan of most modern public art.  With few exceptions — the Calder works come to mind — a lot of the public modern art looks like rusting hunks of junk that people tend to avoid, whereas the whole concept of public art is to engage and, perhaps inspire, the passerby.

On the square in the Les Halles area of Paris, in front of the St. Eustache Cathedral, there is a large stone or concrete ovoid head and hand.  As we walked through the square multiple people engaged with the whimsical head and hand, and in different, interesting ways.  People took pictures, people examined it, people posed with it.  There was even graffiti sprayed on the back of the head. It’s one of the more successful pieces of public modern art that I’ve seen.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IX)

The most recent addition to the Ohio Statehouse grounds — and the final stop on our periodic tour of public art outside the Statehouse — is the Ohio Veterans Plaza, located east of the Statehouse at the Third Street entrance.

The Ohio Veterans Plaza is framed by two curved limestone walls that face each other from the opposing ends of the Plaza.  Each wall is fronted by a fountain and a bed of red, white, and blue flowers.  Between the two walls stretch green rectangular lawns studded with flagpoles and embedded stones with the names of each of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The grounds are lovely, but it is the inscriptions on the facing limestone walls that pack the emotional punch.  The inscriptions are taken from letters from or about soldiers during wartime.  The letters range from the abrupt commanding officer’s notification of grief-stricken relatives of the death of a loved one on Iwo Jima, to heartfelt efforts to explain why wars are necessary, to expressions of love — son to parents, father to son, and husband to wife — written in the shadow of likely death, to more humorous descriptions of the life of a soldier.  It is impossible to read even a few of the letters and not be moved by the sacrifice of those who have fought on our behalf.

As poignant as most of the letters are, my favorite is the letter from Fred, a young man who wanted to let his family back on the farm know about the wonders of the Jeep and how it could make old Kate — no doubt the family plow horse — “look sick.”  It is somehow reassuring to know that, among all the death and devastation and trauma of World War II, one stalwart Ohio farm boy was focused on the future and how a rough and tumble vehicle could make his life in the fields a bit easier.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VIII)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VII)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VI)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (V)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IV)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (III)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VII)

At the intersection of walkways at the southwest corner of the Statehouse is the Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza, which features a rendering of the intrepid explorer, and the capital city’s namesake, atop a granite base and fountain.

The Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza came together gradually.  The hollow copper statue of Columbus was created first and initially was found on the old campus of the Pontifical College Josephinium.  It was donated to the state in 1932 and erected on the Statehouse grounds at that time.  In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, the granite base and fountain were constructed.  In front of Columbus appears the statement:  “The spirit of discovery has the power to change the course of human history, as demonstrated by the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whose imagination shattered the boundaries of the western world.  Modern history has been shaped by one man’s courage to pursue a dream.”

Statues of Columbus all seems to look the same, with old Chris looking down on a sphere, usually with a frown on his face and some seafaring instruments nearby.  The Statehouse statue is along the same lines.  It doesn’t make Columbus seem like the kind of person with whom you’d like to share a long sea voyage.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VI)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (V)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IV)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (III)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VI)

Of the various objects that are found on the sidewalks and at the entrance points to the Ohio Statehouse, several are of a decidedly military air.  They are Civil War cannons, produced by a foundry in Cincinnati in 1864.

Although it is perhaps odd to think of cannons as “public art,” I think these qualify.  Made of bronze, the cannons are bright and metallic and attractive as they glint in the sunshine on a summer day.  Their large wheels — reproductions, not originals — also have a certain sturdy beauty.  The cannons are fully functional; they were being fired at some kind of Civil War reenactment that occurred some weeks ago.

What is public art?  I think it is something designed to make people appreciate something — “appreciation” in the sense of enjoyment, in the sense of thankfulness, and in the sense of contemplation.  The Civil War cannons of the Ohio Statehouse meet that test.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (III)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IV)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (V)