It didn’t take long after Robert Busby’s death in 2007 for people to call for a sculpture honoring Old Town’s guiding spirit. It took a lot longer to make it happen.
Sunday afternoon, a sculpture by Maureen Bergquist Gray, Busby’s old friend and former Old Town denizen, will be dedicated next to the Brenke Fish Ladder, where Busby often strolled near the old coal silos just south of Turner Street. Visitors will be invited to help put in hundreds of plants for the landscaping around the site.
The only thing missing will be Busby himself, but his daughter, Ena Busby, said a fuss like this wasn’t her dad’s thing anyway.
“He would have said, ‘You guys are doing too much,’” Busby said.
That would make him a minority of one.
From the early 1990s until his death, Robert Busby was a friend and quiet mentor to countless artists and non-artists, bridge-builder between the city’s diverse communities, owner of the Creole Gallery and much more. The city went into shock in February 2007, when he was killed by an itinerant handy man he had taken in and given work.
Busby was an artist himself, so a sculpture seemed a perfect tribute, but Ena Busby was amused by some well-meaning early ideas, including a bust of her father.
“A bust?” she laughed. “He would roll over, get up and come and choke whoever decided that was OK.”
Gray knew Robert Busby wouldn’t want Old Town to behold his stone mug in perpetuity, so she went the opposite way.
In Gray’s simple composition, a mirrorlike aluminum sphere nestles between a cream-colored slab of limestone and a darker slab of stainless steel.
“You’ll look in this glazing ball and you’ll be able to see yourself,” Gray said.
The slabs, knit together by three metal ridges, speak of the divides Busby bridged — most conspicuously the racial one. Many people see the sphere as a heart, but to Gray, it is more than that. Instead of a light-sucking ego, Busby’s “heart” is the shiny bit of spherical perfection he drew out of other people.
“It’s like Robert in essence to me,” Gray said.
Gray first came to the Old Town Commercial Association with the design shortly after Busby’s death. Ena Busby loved the drawings right away.
“It’s the most beautiful thing someone could do as a tribute to my father,” she said.
Meegan Holland, Busby’s mate from the mid-‘90s until his death, said Gray’s sculpture is “perfect.”
“It’s organic. It’s touchable. It speaks to me. We all trusted her to come up with a perfect design, and she did,” Holland said.
In its heyday, the Creole Gallery hosted big names like Wynton Marsalis, Mose Allison and the MSU Professors of Jazz. Holland did the booking and Busby cooked meals for the musicians upstairs. Thought-provoking art graced every wall, in the gallery and upstairs in Busby’s crib.
“He introduced me to a whole new world of artists and musicians,” Holland said.
Gray was one of those artists. Holland noticed that Gray called Busby “Buzz.”
“When people called him that, I knew they went way back,” Holland said.
“He was family,” Gray said. “We could sit on a bench for hours and feel at ease with each other. He did that for almost anyone he met.”
Ena Busby and Holland saw no need for a formal commission for the sculpture.
“We just all thought it was a good idea and we all trusted her to do it,” Holland said.
After working for several years in Grand Rapids, Holland moved back to Lansing this year as statewide news editor for MLive Media Group, in time for the long-awaited sculpture to go into place.
“Now I’m back and it’s happening,” she said. “I’m very glad to be back.”
Gray works in a semi-rural house and workshop near Traverse City. She makes her bigger sculptures outdoors, in the middle of a rescue farm crowded with sheep, llamas, alpaca, goats and horses.
In his own art, Busby used found objects such as discarded shoes, window frames, dolls, barbed wire and his own hair, carefully saved over the decades. Gray wanted her tribute to blend materials as well.
“The metals were a little reach for me, because I’m a stone sculptor,” Gray said.
Gray said the sculpure’s location is “great.” When she lived in Old Town, she often walked her dog along the nearby Lansing River Trail.
Money and mortality drew the project out longer than anyone expected.
“We’ve gone a long road with this one,” Gray said. For two years, she cared for her ailing parents and didn’t have time to work.
After a spurt of support in the wake of Busby’s death, a trickle of private donations, including a fundraiser at the Creole Gallery in 2011, finally raised the $4,500 needed for the sculpture. A mix of donations and grants raised another $16,000 for landscaping, a pedestal, a twocolor gravel walkway and 400 plants.
Holland likes the setting, but she’s skeptical about the two-tone gravel walkway.
“I wonder if they really think the different colored pebbles will stay within the lines,” Holland said. “Nothing stays within the lines in Old Town.”
Ena Busby and Louise Gradwohl, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association, want to see benches and more plantings go in. Donors can help via a Kickstarter drive at the association’s website.
Ena Busby hopes more donors step up to make the garden a “Busby-esque place.”
“There’s a new playground nearby,” Busby said. “You can play, then go over and get some culture. Sit and have a moment with someone.”
But Busby is almost frighteningly good at switching to her father’s “enough is enough” tone.
“I think it’s the last thing we’re going to do in his honor. We’ve got the bridge,” she said, referring to the Turner Street Bridge over the Grand River, named after Busby in 2009. “This is enough.”
Remembering Robert Busby
Planting and sculpture dedication 2-5 p.m. Sunday Burchard Park, next to Brenke Fish Ladder in Old Town Suggested donation $5; bring garden tools and gloves Contact Louise Gradwohl at the Old Town Commercial Association (517) 485-4283