It was an event that begged for a sunny day, and the official unveiling of a sculpture by Asheville’s first Public Artist of the Year came at just the right time. On March 10, a small crowd gathered at the western corner of downtown’s Pritchard Park, a hulking mass wrapped in white sheets before them. Shortly after noon, the cloth came off, and the “Deco Gecko,” gleaming in the sun, was loosed at last.
The sculptor, local metal artist Harry McDaniel, was named Asheville’s 2008 Public Artist of the Year by a volunteer Public Art Board. The award, which carried with it a $10,000 stipend, was funded by the Harry F. and Elaine Chaddick Foundation.
The sculpture is made of brushed aluminum, and according to McDaniel, was shaped to honor the Art Deco stylings of architects like the late Douglas Ellington, who designed City Hall, the S&W Cafeteria Building and other highlights of the Asheville skyline. “In the end, I settled on a few simple common elements to work with: zig-zags, circles, spirals and plant forms. These elements appear in various forms in many Art Deco buildings,” McDaniel explained. “The gecko came into the design somewhat whimsically.”
City Council member Carl Mumpower, who lead the drive to create the public-artist post—and to do it without government funding—introduced McDaniel and heralded the program, which will select a new public artist each year. “That’s a big thing, that’s a special thing,” he said. “Now you would think it would be an easy thing, [but] it has not been. It’s taken about three years to get to this point.”
Though no one mentioned it at the ceremony, some previous pieces of public art have drawn controversy in Asheville. McDaniel voiced hopes that his sculpture would rise above that sort of fray. “Some people will immediately dismiss abstract artwork as ‘a pile of scrap metal’ or ‘something my 5-year-old could do,’ without really looking at it,” he noted. “Ideally, a public piece will catch people’s attention in some way, before those kind of judgments can block their vision.”