By BOB MANNING
As a longtime Davidson resident, I have tried my best to appreciate the care with which “A Bouquet for Davidson,” the sculpture between the post office and Main Street, was created. I have attempted to place it in the context of public art, of which there are a great many excellent examples across the country. I have tried to view it as a work which, though initially off-putting, will somehow “grow” on all of us.
But in all honesty, I can’t do it. Instead of growing on us, it seems to have become just an unsightly part of the landscape, like the mess in your garage that you intend, someday, to tidy up, but never do. Now don’t get me wrong … I am dissatisfied less for aesthetic reasons than I am disappointed in the piece. Apparently, it is not what its designer had in mind, and is certainly not what the Davidson Town Board says it paid for. It is, in other words, the wrong object for its space. But it could be made right again.
First, a few facts. The Art Commission of the Town of Davidson was formed in 2008, primarily to discuss the development of public art in the town. After discussion of the nature and role of such art, the Commission set out to find a sculptor who might create an initial public offering. They found him in Andy Dunnill, an affable sculptor working in steel. Then, as the day for revealing the piece to the town approached, the Commission released the following::
The piece is a steel sculpture – in the artist’s words, a “tall, playful gestural sculpture that dances in space like a figurative and architectonic three-dimensional poem. It holds the site with a strong physical presence. It is, however, designed with a human scale interaction in mind. The viewer can lean, sit, lay or climb on the piece; they can be cradled by it or simply walk around it and look.” The piece includes “references to flora and fauna, books, farm machinery, the human figure and harvesting. There are forms that echo the base of the post office columns and simultaneously imply inflatable inner tubes the sort used for play on the water. The sculpture is essentially an abstract response to the town, the site and the people with whom it will share a home. It is meant to be a celebration of life form energy and spatial dynamics in a physical world.”
The sculpture was offered to the public in late April 2009. DavidsonNews.Net reported that “kids and grownups couldn’t wait to get close to the 15-foot steel creation by artist Andy Dunnill. But even as they climbed, nervous bystanders could be heard whispering about potential dangers.” Less than a week after its dedication, observers were enjoined not to lean, sit, lay or climb on the piece, or to be cradled by it. The town’s insurers deemed it too dangerous to do so.
In response to this change, DavidsonNews.Net reported the following (emphasis mine):
Mr. Dunnill, a British-born sculptor and professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro said in an email message Wednesday, “I anticipated this…Nobody wants a kid to fall and hurt themselves, nor do they want to be held liable for such an unfortunate accident should it occur.”
He said he found it “very satisfying” that some people had a chance to “scrump on the sculpture” at Saturday’s dedication. “It is after all one of my favorite parts of the making process,” he said. But he added, “From now on, they will have to simply look and touch. When all is said and done, the town commissioned a sculpture, not a jungle gym.” (See April 29, 2009, “Insurer says: Please don’t climb on the sculpture.”)
A work that was presented as having been “designed with human interaction in mind,” was not, in its designer’s mind at least, a piece for climbing. And that’s a shame. A lot of very good public art allows for just this sort of play. But why did the Commission and Mr, Dunnill not anticipate the problem together?
Today, of course, nobody should want to climb on it. The piece has rusted badly. But if recent observations count for anything, kids (and grown-ups) are all over it. If, as they indicated earlier, the town’s insurance carriers won’t cover it, such activity should stop. If not, a lawsuit isn’t far off, one that will make the MI-Connection bill look like the tab for a Big O at the Soda Shop. We won’t be able to afford either the personal tragedy or its financial consequences.
Despite these activities, it seems hard to believe that the same sculptor who assured us that the work was designed to include direct physical contact would then plan to allow it to rust. In fact, I can find no indication that it was so designed, and Mr. Dunnill apparently did not anticipate the disconnect either. The earliest such statement came in response to concerns expressed by Around Davidson columnist Brenda Barger, again in DavidsonNews.Net:
“There were lots of comments when artist Andy Dunnill’s sculpture between the Davidson Post Office and Main Street was erected. Some applauded the work while others were reluctant to voice negative comment. Postal employee Tim Honeycutt even took heat from dismayed patrons who thought the US Postal Service had paid for the art and placed it on post office property. (It sits on town property.)
All that aside, one wonders about the current appearance of the statue. Named “A Bouquet for Davidson,” it has been in place for nine months and is rusting badly. To the untrained eye, it now looks more like an assemblage of poorly weathering scrap metal than a pricey work of art. Around Davidson would welcome input from someone in the know about the statue’s appearance today and what we can expect it to look like in the future.”
In response, Commission member, and sometimes spokesman Cort Savage, offered the following (my emphasis added):
“I completely understand a viewer’s dismay that our “Bouquet,” only a few months old, is already rusting. If I bought a car and it was rusting in a few months, I would be furious! But a sculpture and a car are two different things with different intentions and purposes.
“Art should generate conversation, even if it means people disagree, but it is helpful if the conversation is informed, so here’s some information.
“Davidson’s sculpture, like many outdoor sculptures, was intended to naturally rust, and this was taken into consideration when it was made to make sure the rust would not compromise the physical integrity of the artwork. The rust ultimately makes a more uniform surface that requires a minimum of maintenance. This tradition goes back to the very beginnings of welded steel sculpture …”.
“My education and 30 years as a sculptor have led me to agree. I can look at the rust on my truck and see it as ugly, but I look at the rust on a Richard Serra sculpture in New York, or the cast iron Antony Gormley sculpture on the campus of Davidson College, or the Andy Dunhill (sic) sculpture on Main Street and see the rust as gorgeous.” (See Feb. 3, 2010, “On public art, autos and rust”)
According to Prof. Savage, then, Davidson’s sculpture was intended to rust. And it was so designed because steel naturally rusts, and because rust can be “gorgeous.”
Now Prof. Savage and I were once colleagues, members of the faculty at Davidson. Moreover, as he carefully notes, he possesses a lot of formal education in the field of art, and has been a working sculptor for over 30 years. I am qualified to take on his statements only because I am a Davidson taxpayer and thus part-owner of the piece, and because I can read I can also tie my shoes and reject cauliflower — none of these qualifications is difficult to achieve. But even a cat may look at a king, so here goes.
To begin, I do not believe that the piece was ever intentionally designed to rust. Mr. Dunnill never mentioned it in any public statements I can find, and surely did not have it in mind when he allowed the pre-presentation description to include the suggestion that the piece would be good for snuggling. Only when the inevitable occurred, when oxidation set in, did Prof. Savage put forth the information on the aesthetic wonder that is rust.
A personal note … Prof. Savage is quite correct in observing that a number of outdoor sculptures have been allowed to rust. In my hometown of Pittsburgh, honorary capital of the Rust Belt, a good bit of energy has been devoted to remembering the furnaces and mills that made the city great. One of these it is the Carrie Furnace complex, a dead relic whose site is now being re-established as a park. These seven blast furnaces near Homestead, Pa. helped make the steel that won World War II, and that subsequently transformed America. The structure has become Art, I think, exactly because, like a decommissioned battleship in harbor, it is no longer useful in its old role. For residents it also conjures up an era in which it was not ridiculous to dedicate a furnace.
The men who dedicated the Carrie furnaces, for the most part, spent their lives working in them. Now the structures sit quietly and rust. Their cloak of dignity is made of iron and oxygen. One of the seven furnaces in the complex was dedicated in 1917. A grainy old photo shows an exuberant Uncle Sam leading the ceremony. This special Uncle Sam is my grandfather, O.F. Manning. Art is where you find it, and sometimes with whom it’s found. And sometimes, rust is gorgeous. Here it allows us to appreciate the hunger of time. I can see no such advantage to it in Davidson’s signal sculpture.
Mr. Dunnill’s art was, when dedicated, surely controversial. Like Prof. Savage, many people believe that the purpose of art is to initiate discussion. I’m not one of them, but I understand their point. But now it seems to just sit there, demanding to be treated with dignity because, well, because it’s Art, and it’s initiating conversations, and that’s no good at all.
“A Bouquet for Davidson” can still be used to our advantage. I think the piece is mislocated. Its creator hoped that people would be able to walk around it, to appreciate and enjoy it from all sides and perspectives. That can’t happen now. The walk from Main Street to the Post Office shows only one side. But it could happen if the piece were cleaned and relocated.
Cleaned? Yes. If the sculpture is to live up to its designer’s vision, if it is to be a “tall, playful gestural sculpture that dances in space like a figurative and architectonic three-dimensional poem,” the rust has to go.
And relocated. A while back, someone proposed that it be removed to one of the circles formed by the twin roundabout at the Griffith Street entrance to the town.
I think that’s a grand idea. Few would be tempted to climb on it, but many could see and appreciate it as an introduction to our very special community.
O.. F. Manning as Uncle Sam. Dedication of Carrie Furnace #4, April, 1917.
Bob Manning is a Davidson resident and retired professor at Davidson College, where he was director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and Dana Professor of Physics and Humanities.