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Wednesday, September 15,2010

The road to ’Inspiration’

With sesquicentennial gift, public sculpture returns to Lansing

by Lawrence Cosentino

“What do you think it means?”


Bob Trezise, CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., had me on the spot. I was supposed to be interviewing him.


When things get sticky, stick to the facts.


“It” is a gateway-like arch 20 feet tall, made of polished stainless steel, cleverly curved so it changes shape from various angles.


In nine months, if all goes as planned, “Inspiration,” by California sculptor James T. Russell, will stand alongside the Grand River near the City Market as Lansing’s first major foray into public sculpture since the early 1980s.


The design was unveiled today by the Lansing 150 Foundation, which is giving the sculpture to the city as a (literally) monumental birthday gift.


The whole project, including site preparation, is expected to cost $275,000, of which about $125,000 has been raised so far, all from private donors.


But enough facts. This is art. What does it mean?


At Lansing City Hall, they’re circling the design with a quizzical grin.


“I’ve heard a few different interpretations,” Trezise said.


Does it embody a newly forged Lansing, rising from the old industrial center? Or a clean drop of water, symbolizing stewardship of nature? The latter would jibe with the sculpture’s proposed site on the Grand River.


There is a more piquant interpretation, endorsed by the sculptor himself. Let’s save it for the end of this story, after the kids are in bed.


Reached by phone in California, Russell said he’s used to “What is it?” speculation.


“I’ve had people say, ‘That looks like a brake shoe adjustor,’” he said. “They’re trying to see something in it. People will come to it with different ideas.”


Most of Russell’s monumental sculptures, scattered in about 40 cities around the world, involve vertical streamers of steel, striving toward “Excellence,” “Hope,” “Blue Sky” (actual titles) or some other aspiration you’d be a cad to oppose. Russell’s only other sculpture in Michigan is a narrow 15-foot-tall sculpture called “Nimbus Flight,” in St. Joseph.


“People have called my sculptures ribbons of shiny steel, and that’s OK,” he said. “Ribbons of shiny steel are beautiful.”


After a series of nasty battles over public art in the second half of the 20th century, many public artists are working outside the culture wars, skirting the edge between timeless art and meaningless ornament.


For Lansing, Russell said, a monument to this or that person or institution wouldn’t do. He said he deliberately avoided “specific subject matter,” keeping the 150-year time span uppermost in his mind.


After all, even the venerable Oldsmobile sprang up, thrived and came to an end within 150 years.


“You need something that looks new, not ‘now’ — something that will still look new at the 200 mark,” he said.


That’s exactly what Michael Harrison, heading the Lansing 150 Foundation, had in mind when he envisioned a gift for Lansing.


Harrison, a judge of Ingham County’s Circuit Court for 25 years and now a senior attorney at Foster Swift, said he wanted all along to use the money left after the city’s sesquicentennial events to commission a sculpture.


“My wife and I have done a lot of traveling,” Harrison said. “We’ve appreciated the dimension sculpture adds to communities.”


As the city’s birthday bash wound down in late 2009, Harrison found himself with a nice pedestal of cash for the stack that would be needed. The Dart Foundation earmarked $25,000 for the gift. The Rotary Foundation gave $50,000, and the Capitol Region Community Foundation chipped in $25,000.


“That was our starting point,” Harrison said.


To pick a design, Harrison assembled a mix of donor reps, arts people and downtown business leaders and developers.


Among those drafted into cultural service were developer Pat Gillespie, Christman Co. CEO Steve Roznowski, retired Greater Lansing Arts Council president Sue Mills, Accident Fund Insurance Co. CEO Liz Haar, associate dean Helen Mickens of Cooley Law School, Impression 5 Science Center director Eric Larsen, grants manager Claudia Deschaine of the Dart Corp. and City Pulse editor/publisher Berl Schwartz.


As liaison to the art world, Harrison tapped Roy Saper, longtime East Lansing gallery owner and art dealer.


It didn’t take Saper and Harrison long to bond over their favorite public sculpture: the giant silver bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park (Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”).


“That has to be the best public artwork in the world today,” Saper said. “I see it as a model for Lansing.”


“Cloud Gate” is the acme of soft-edged, postmodern abstract public sculpture, fun and interactive.


The
committee members loved its simplicity and beauty, but were most
impressed by the long lines of tourists waiting to touch it and take
photos of their reflections. Could a sculpture bring that kind of
positive energy — and hungry shoppers — to Lansing?


“When you have to have 24-hour security around a public sculpture, you know it’s a success,” Saper said.


Straightaway, Saper sent out a feeler to Kapoor, but the news wasn’t good.


“For hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’d get something that would fit in a bowling ball case,” Saper said.


(“Cloud Gate,” originally budgeted at $9 million, ended up costing from $20 million to $23 million.)


The next step was to find an artist who would work for Lansing’s “beer budget,” as Saper described it.


Saper pushed for two widely accomplished sculptors who specialize in metal work: Russell and Mexico’s Leonardo Nierman.


But other members of the committee, including Sue Mills, wanted to look harder for a Michigan artist.


Harrison and Saper spread the news to Michigan guilds and art groups.


“In
my own heart, I was hoping we could find something by a Michigan
sculptor,” Mills said. “But they didn’t have experience in something of
the size and stature we wanted.”


Saper
put it more bluntly.


“None of them were above a 3 on a 1 to 10 scale,
where 10 is perfect and 1 is totally pathetic,” he said.


It
came down to Russell’s “Inspiration” and a set of ornate, flower-like
fantasias by Nierman, also in stainless steel. A few committee members
said Nierman may have hurt his chances by submitting several similar
designs, all of them complex, while Russell stuck to one strong image.


Harrison, Saper, Mills and Mickens all recalled a unanimous vote for the Russell design.


Mills said she was satisfied with the process.


“I felt Michigan artists had a fair chance, but when we looked at everything, this is the one that rose to the top,” Mills said.


The
next matter to be worked out was the site. Saper pushed for the traffic
circle east of the Capitol, arguing that more people would see it
there. Harrison said that was “never a viable option” because it
wouldn’t fit and people couldn’t interact with it there.


Trezise said the riverside location is “perfect.”


“Whether
you see it from the City Market, the Accident Fund, the Shiawassee
Bridge, the River Trail, it’s going to look different from every angle,”
he said.


But two
hurdles have to be jumped to secure the spot. The proposed site is in a
floodway, where the sculpture could block debris floating down the river
in a catastrophic flood. Trezise said the city is talking with the
state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment to work it out.


Secondly, the city’s Parks Board will have to formally consider and vote on the location, because the site is on park property.


Trezise
said the site isn’t as important as the impact of a major new public
sculpture on the city’s morale and economic momentum.


“For
whatever reason, we’ve not had much of a public art component to the
city,” Trezise said. “It says something about the sophistication and
diversity of the city, and I think that’s been lacking in the past.”


Mills said it often came down to money.


“Dollars
in state government and city government are just dwindling, and in our
community, we just don’t have those wealthy people that step in, like
they do in Grand Rapids,” she said.


Trezise agreed.


“It’s
a big step forward when a group of CEOs and companies are taking on a
philanthropic endeavor,” he said. “Frankly, that’s been missing in the
past.”


But money is not all that’s lacking.


The
most infamous episode in Lansing’s art history is the rise and fall of
“This Equals That,” by internationally renowned sculptor Michael Heizer.
When installed in 1980, funded by state government and private funds,
it was the largest sculpture in the United States, Lansing’s
“Stonehenge.”


In
the adventurous spirit of the times, then- Gov. William G. Milliken
approved the selection, commenting that he didn’t want to plant “another
politician on a horse” downtown.


In
a huge array of geometric forms, “this” — a pill-shaped cylinder 48
feet thick — was juxtaposed with “that” — 14 smaller forms representing
two halves, four quarters and eight eighths of the pill.


The sculpture rested on a plaza west of the state Capitol for 22 years before being dismantled in 2002.


Tourists
from around the world came to see it. I recall sitting at my desk at
City Pulse in 2004, explaining by phone to a shocked caller from Germany
that the sculpture was gone. The list of “must-sees” on his upcoming
trip to the United States had been reduced by one item.


As
with another controversial modern sculpture, Richard Serra’s “Tilted
Arc” in Manhattan, safety was invoked as a reason to take “This Equals
That” down. State budget officials said the sculpture had cracked,
allowing water to seep into the underground garage below, but there was
plenty of evidence that taste played a role.


John
Truscott, former press secretary to Gov. John Engler, invoked the
classic complaint against abstract art in a December 2003 radio
interview: “it looked like something an elementary school kid could have
done.”


A 2002
editorial in the Lansing State Journal opined that the state needed “a
little more Norman Rockwell and a little less Picasso.”


Mills doubts that Russell’s “Inspiration” will incite that kind of reaction.


“It’s
going to be non-controversial, which for public sculpture is probably
good for a community that’s a little on the conservative side, like
Lansing,” she said.


When
it comes to appreciating the positive impact of public art, Lansing is
playing catch-up with neighboring communities near and far. Lately,
Mills has been biking the Michigan State University campus, enjoying the
recent Art in Public Places initiative there.


The
MSU Public Art on Campus Committee, created in 1999, reserves 0.5
percent of the cost of major renovations on campus to dedicate art work
to new or renovated buildings. The most spectacular recent addition is
the $150,000 “Funambulist,” by sculptor John Van Alstine, towering over
the recently renovated Snyder-Phillips residence halls.


Mills and other committee members also mentioned the public art scene in Grand Rapids as a model for Lansing.


In
1969, Calder’s giant red “stabile,” “La Grande Vitesse,” went up in
front of the Grand Rapids city hall. (It was the first artwork supported
by the National Endowment for the Arts.) “Vitesse” quickly become a
symbol of the city and its vibrant public art scene.


Last summer, Helen Mickens was blown away
by the ambitious Artprize competition in Grand Rapids. She recalled
dragging a friend through a relentless schedule of art encounters that
influenced her thinking as she sat on the selection committee.


“The
most successful pieces were the ones people could walk up to, they
could touch, that their kids could feel, that they became a part of,”
she said. “I don’t know how many family albums have sculptures in them
now because of that show.”


Mickens
and other committee members are banking on “Inspiration” to do the same
in Lansing. They hope people will find it irresistible to walk through
the arch, take pictures of themselves in the reflection, or pop their
heads above the crossing lines.


“Art like that becomes a part of people’s family history,” Mickens said. “It will attract a lot of people.”


Are the kids in bed yet? We promised one more interpretation of “Inspiration.”


True
to the postmodern spirit of all-things-to-all-people public art,
Russell’s Lansing opus neatly combines the male and female “principles”
(let’s keep this abstract). It’s a tall erection with an inviting
aperture, welded together as seamlessly as Russell’s stainless steel
panels.


This is no
Freudian flight of fancy. As it happens, Russell wrote his first
master’s thesis on “the juxtaposition of contrasting contours,” the
blending of towers and curves that runs through almost all of his work.
He explained the idea in terms of men and women.


“They’re
opposites, but they’re not hostile opposites,” Russell said. “They’re
attractive opposites. The two become one and become even more powerful.”


Russell agrees that “Inspiration” is the tightest union of male and female he’s created yet.


“This sculpture is almost climactic in that sense,” he said.


“I’m not touching that one,” Trezise said.



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