Beating public-art enemy No. 1

The Rev. James M. McKinley rose one recent winter morning to deliver his Sunday sermon not on the evils of drink, drugs or gambling, or even on the sins of the flesh.

Instead, McKinley lifted his voice in praise — preaching the gospel of public art.

The leader of Hendersonville’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship talked to his parishioners about the surge of new energy he’d felt in his city with the advent of “Show Me the Sculpture,” an innovative, multi-site public-art exhibit spreading across various sites in and around downtown, from McKinley’s own church rectory to business lawns and public parks.

The Henderson County Arts Council conceived of the idea, forming a committee of artists and interested citizens to discuss ways a small community saddled with a small budget could still have exciting public art.

The Public Art Committee decided to test the waters last fall by renting, rather than buying, sculptures from Southeastern artists. First, the committee asked the Tri-State Sculptors Guild (encompassing Virginia and the Carolinas) to send slides of members’ work. The slides were shown to local businesses and individuals in hopes they would rent the art of their choice for a full year.

And rent they did. Sponsors chose 13 pieces, then selected the location where their sculptures would be displayed, paying the respective artist the rental and installation fees. Most pieces were up by November.

Once the new art was in place, Western Carolina University sculpture professor Marya Roland went around and judged them, with the “best in show” work taking down a $500 prize.

Location, location, location

In front of the Hendersonville County chapter of the Boys and Girls Club (1304 Ash St.) sprawls Object at Rest. The deceptively named steel sculpture by Greenville, N.C., artist Phil Proctor is appropriately playful, looking as though it could lift its ponderous weight at any moment and go spinning away.

Unfortunately, not every piece has proven as suited to its surroundings. Florida artist Robert Coon’s painted-aluminum Tumble Totem V, somewhat human in scale, stands beside a walking trail in Patton Park (1728 Asheville Hwy. N.), where the openness of the space proves problematic for the work itself. The sculpture’s whimsically painted twists and turns get lost in the park’s surrounding maze of fence posts and light poles. Ironically, a small copse of evergreen trees just a few yards away would have provided a more effective backdrop for the work’s cheerful pastel colors.

Attorney Sam Neill experienced problems with nearby human elements over the sculptures he chose to go in front of his downtown office (222 W. 3rd Ave.).

“When [the artworks] first went in, some of my neighbors were aghast,” Neill admits.

“But now,” he insists, “they love them. All my clients see something different in them — it’s been a fascinating thing to see the reactions.”

Neill selected a trio of cement works by Asheville artist Harry McDaniel — Blue Spire, Red Spire and Orange Spire — which now crouch in a ritualistic circle under a tall fir tree.

“They have so much life,” says Neill.” All three had to be together.”

Rented revelations

Public Art Committee and Hendersonville City Council member Mary Jo Padgett reports that most of the comments from her constituents about the “Show Me the Sculpture” pieces have been positive.

The artists, too, stand to benefit from the project. Some sponsors are contemplating buying their selections at the end of the rental period.

Outside the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship rectory (409 W. Patterson St.) looms a reddish-brown 8-foot concrete monolith topped with a small round opening holding a single vertical bar crossed by double horizontal ones — a rudimentary Celtic cross.

Untitled, made of concrete, resembles one of those haunting standing stones that often flank ancient Celtic sacred ceremonial sites.

The work’s rough surface offers a welcome contrast to the hard-edged brick building behind it. The piece, by Asheboro artist Roger Halligan, was judged “best in show” — and continues to inspire McKinley, who shared with his congregation his thoughts on living with it.

In passing by the sculpture each day, McKinley has witnessed it smothered in snow, soaked with rain and supporting perching birds, he noted. He has wondered why the sculptor made the bolts on the base so visible when the rest of the piece is so organic.

Art, McKinley mused, is an attempt to share an insight, an upwelling in our lives, a door to revelation.

“Having these sculptures here,” he noted, “has changed my concept of my town — seeing who was willing to sponsor a work, seeing what each sponsor would choose.

“The project has given me feelings of wild hopefulness,” McKinley added. “There are new voices in my community — these artists have generated new conversations. These works appeared suddenly, and enlarged our community. They are in our space for a whole year.

“Let us pause,” he added, “and see what will be revealed.”

— additional reporting by Frank Rabey

Go to the Henderson County Arts Council’s Web site (www.henderson-arts.org) and click on the sculpture icon to vote for your favorite “Show me the Sculpture” piece.

Other public sculptures

Seeking God — bronze; Dale McEntire (Saldua); Southeastern Sureties (214 N. King St.)

Personal Space #1 – steel; Hanna Jubran (Greenville, N.C.); Hendersonville Board of Realtors (316 E. 1st Ave).

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