Art Betsy Public Art

By Betsy DiJulio

The third time appears to be the charm.

Over the course of two years, 13 to 14 committee members selected four finalists in the search for a sculpture to grace MacArthur Square in downtown Norfolk.  One commission to Electroland and three iterations later, Mayor Paul Fraim was finally able to dedicate “MetalMatisse” on May 18.  Rain be damned.

Some 50 to 60 intrepid supporters joined Fraim, members of the Public Art Commission, the committee chosen to select this particular sculpture, and members of the artist and fabricator team, including principals, Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley, in the Bean There Coffeehouse, a hastily arranged inclimate weather location for the champagne reception.

The sculpture’s official RFP (Request for Proposals) stated that Norfolk sought a “brave, fun, and iconic” work. The finalists’ submissions came in the form of a dog teetering on four classical columns proposed by nationally-known contemporary artist Donald Lipski; two tanker trucks assembled into a kind of truck tower by acclaimed New York artist Mike Ross; an LED-lit smart glass cube, the brain child of nationally known, but locally grown, Grow Interactive; and “Tripod,” a hi-tech “spectacle” piece by internationally-known, California-based Electroland.

According to Commissioner and committee member, Lisa Chandler, the committee responded to the interactivity of Electroland’s initial submission, along with its scale and materials, plus the firm’s prior public art experience.  Yet, as Karen Rudd, Norfolk’s Director of Cultural Affairs, explained, they felt “Tripod” was too large for the available space.  So, the committee, working under the auspices of the Public Art Commission, sent Electroland back to the drawing board.  However, “Arbor Avis” (Bird Tree), which came next, seemed “too industrial; too urban.”  So back the committee sent them again in search of something more “graceful.”  “We gave ‘em a plenty hard time here in Norfolk,” Rudd recalls with a wry laugh.

What emerged were the techno-flower forms of the current sculpture around which a vase was ultimately formed, leading to the title MetalMatisse.  Though there is no particular connection between French artist, Henri Matisse, and Norfolk, the reference is in keeping with what Rudd describes as city planning consultant Ray Gindroz’s “alignment of the city with classical Europe.”

Though most residents know what “getting Gindrozed” means, for the uninitiated, it is the blessing of all development plans by the highly pedigreed Gindroz (think Carnegie Mellon student and Yale professor), Principal Emeritus of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates.  His love of European Renaissance cities and his keen understanding of a visually harmonious and “congenial” city as a driver of economic growth has guided the development and revitalization of Norfolk for well over a decade.

MetalMatisse is no shrinking violet, day or night, though, like some people we all know, it takes on a markedly different persona after the sun goes down.  Sensors in each of the hi-tech flower forms respond to passersby—including the light rail–with both sound and light and, though the computer program operating the sensors remains constant, the colorful light show is more visible in the dark and is, in fact, quite spectacular.  When there is no street activity, Rudd explains that the sculpture “does its own thing.”  Chandler is of the opinion that, even in the daytime, “the components are compelling enough to draw people in,” in part to figure out exactly what they are made of and what the sun is glinting off of so brightly.

Just after the sculpture was dedicated, I used it as what we in education call a “journal prompt” or “hook” at the beginning of class with my Advanced and AP art students.  What emerged after showing them a slide with both day and night-time images, a reproduction of a Matisse still-life, and the briefest information about both “MetalMatisse,” in particular, and public sculpture, in general, was impressive and thoughtful insights.  Out of the mouths of babes…

Though only one of my students had seen the sculpture—in the daytime—they sounded like seasoned public art aficionados as they spoke with knowledge and conviction about a range of issues.  They spoke eloquently about the importance of a sculpture such as this to lend a particular identity to the city, a branding strategy if you will.  And one, in particular, was unperturbed by the lack of any specific link between Matisse and Norfolk, citing the example of Minneapolis’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry.”

And they interpreted the sculpture’s dual day vs. night personas as the embodiment of Norfolk as a contemporary city with historical roots, as is visually manifest in the contrasting architecture of the downtown area.  Further, they felt that, regardless of whether “MetalMatisse” is the ideal sculpture for Norfolk, it lays the groundwork for what is to come while sending a message that Norfolk is a forward-thinking, up-and-coming, dynamic city.

Though some questioned the efficacy of a sculpture that shines most brightly at night, so to speak, when fewer people will see it, that led them to the acknowledgement of what just may be the heart of the matter: that public art is a valuable catalyst for dialogue and debate.