When you see people standing in the street, gawking at something, there’s usually a wreck or a fight. This time, it was art (and it wasn’t the Pack Square sign or the Federal Building sculpture).
On a breezy Tuesday, Aug. 31, Black Mountain Iron Works owners Dan Howachyn and Tekla were temporarily erecting their latest sculpture, “Shopping Daze.” At the behest of city staff, they had it propped up at the corner of Haywood Street and Walnut Street.
This was a trial run for “Shopping Daze,” which needs city-staff approval before becoming the 24th stop along the Urban Trail in downtown Asheville.
Eleven feet wide and 6 feet tall at its highest point, the all-metal piece depicts three stylishly attired women strutting down the street with their little dog. Their bare metal outlines hint at swishing skirts, feathered hats and high heels … and the dog prances ahead, tugging at his leash and playing with a bone.
Within moments of the sculpture’s appearance, people were stopping, pointing, talking about it. They stood at the edge of Haywood Street, forcing cars to creep past (but then, the motorists were gawking, too). Many nodded their heads in approval.
City staffers, however — who constituted half the onlookers — were withholding final judgment. “They have some issues,” explained Rick Ramsey, one of many Asheville Downtown Association volunteers responsible for raising the thousands of dollars needed to commission the sculpture and make it a permanent addition to the city’s Urban Trail. The trail is a walking tour of downtown, marked by monuments and plaques, that celebrates Asheville’s rich history. The “Shopping Daze” project has been 18 months in the making, Ramsey noted, and volunteers are anxious to have it installed by early fall.
“Our whole goal, in the last 10 years, has been to get people downtown. [This year], we decided to do something with the money [from Downtown After Five and other ADA events], and give something back to the community,” Ramsey remarked.
But, as one city staffer commented, an internal debate about “Shopping Daze” became “a dogfight in the office”: Was Haywood Street, in front of Malaprop’s, the best place to put the piece? What color should it be painted (if at all)? Would the sculpture interfere with the probable redesign of the Walnut intersection, or would it block pedestrian traffic? And would pedestrians trip over the little dog?
To put these concerns to rest, staff consented to a test showing of “Shopping Daze,” taking to the street for a round of very public field work. Urban Trail Coordinator Hojun Welker mingled, soliciting comments from passers-by and city staffers alike, taking notes and urging people to write down their comments and drop them in a box that sat on the pedestal beside the little metal dog.
A real-live Dalmatian stopped to sniff his steel counterpart, before trotting past. A woman told Welker, “Someone just asked me, ‘Do they have to have the dog, because we have dog issues [downtown].’ But that little dog makes the piece.”
And one woman had given city staff an earful about assorted dog-related problems downtown, reported Welker.
Howachyn pointed to the tall metal woman on the end: “That’s Liz,” he said — and then, motioning down the line, he identified Norma Jean and Betty. “And that,” he said, indicating the dog, “is Buttons. They all developed a personality, as we worked on [the piece].”
There’s more than a hint of sass in their poses: Norma Jean rests one braceleted hand on her hip, the other hand appears to tug at Betty’s purse. Liz, her right hand decked with a faux diamond ring, appears ready to dance the day away, with one foot thrust forward in an arched pose. And Betty seems intent on figuring out what Buttons is up to now.
Surrounding the piece were bright-orange traffic cones — testimony to the unresolved question of where to put it.
The dog remained an issue. Public Works employees pointed out that the metal critter couldn’t be placed directly over the grate of a small tree in front of Malaprop’s, where it was during this test run: City crews have to be able to remove the grate, and — more importantly — placing the dog-end of the sculpture over it probably violates the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Another staffer mentioned the potential for pedestrians to trip over Buttons, if the entire sculpture were lowered to ground level, without a pedestal, as originally intended.
Local engineer and preservationist Bill Wescott pulled out a tape measure (engineers always carry such things): In its present placement, did the sculpture meet the city’s new requirement that sidewalk obstructions leave a six-foot-wide berth for pedestrians to navigate the sidewalk. “Ninety-two inches,” declared Wescott, content. He’s worked on restoring City Hall’s tiled roof, and now has a hand in the Grove Arcade renovation. For good measure, Wescott tossed in that he likes “Shopping Daze” on a pedestal, a foot off the ground (he measured that, too). Elevating the piece makes it easier to see — and would probably resolve the tripping-over-Buttons issue, Wescott argued.
But Asheville Traffic Engineer Michael Moule remained cautious, fingering the big metallic purse dangling off Liz’s arm. Although Howachyn, Tekla and designer Tucker Cooke had aimed at keeping the entire sculpture no more than 14 inches deep, the purse jutted out farther than any other point on the piece, Moule noted, before concluding, “But there aren’t any sharp edges,” satisfied with that aspect of the public-safety issue.
And Tekla allowed that the exact arrangement of the purse could be fine-tuned a bit.
Moule also worried about leaving room on the sidewalk for admirers to view the piece: “Look where everyone’s standing: in the street,” he observed. Moule was right: Observers had clustered together on the pavement; and, though they lingered in a loading zone, just out of the line of vehicle traffic, cars still slowed down to edge around them carefully.
But Moule’s plans for redesigning the Walnut/Haywood intersection could solve the viewing-room problem: He intends to make the existing crosswalks more visible and add another one across Haywood, on the Malaprop’s side (where people already cross, as well). And the sidewalk in front of Malaprop’s would be enlarged to bulge out at each crosswalk, Moule explained, offering pedestrians a narrower street to cross — and giving sculpture admirers more sidewalk.
This plan, however, is contingent on the results of a public meeting scheduled for Sept. 23, when Moule will discuss Walnut Street’s one-way traffic status with property owners, residents and business owners. (Earlier this year, Asheville City Council member Barbara Field, who lives above Earth Guild on Haywood Street, had complained about the recent experimental switch from two-way to one-way).
Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Malloy mentioned a very practical concern about the one-way status of Walnut: If the sculpture were installed before the intersection gets redesigned, the city would have to bust it out of the sidewalk and move it.
Ramsey said he could understand that concern and was willing to wait till the city had the final word on Walnut Street.
The effervescent women of “Shopping Daze” could end up rooted not in a downtown sidewalk for all to enjoy, but stuck in the day-to-day necessities of bureaucracy, one wry observer remarked, adding that there are some downtowns around the country that would love to have the “problems” of not enough parking and too much art.
Meanwhile, motorists continued to drive by, craning their necks to see what everyone was standing in the street for. A taxi paused a bit too long, prompting a Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy two cars behind him to get out of his car and march forward to see about speeding things along. The taxi driver got the hint before the linebacker-sized deputy reached him.
But few even noticed that little law-enforcement drama, because the sidewalk art discussion had moved on to an anti-sexist complaint issued by one passer-by, who mentioned that all three women in the statue were wearing skirts — rather than pants.
“It’s a period piece,” responded Tekla, wearing jeans herself. She’d noted that the three women in “Shopping Daze” represent Haywood Street at its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, when big department stores, like Ivey’s, were still downtown. Back then, skirts were more common than pants, Tekla continued. Even the women’s hats sported little curlicues and other ’30s flourishes.
“Art should spark comments and debate,” Howachyn injected.
An elderly resident of the nearby Vanderbilt Apartments paused to study the piece, noting the detailed bracelets worn by two of the women and the mock diamond ring on Norma Jean’s hand. “It’s nice; it’s real nice,” the gentleman said, leaning on his cane. He seemed particularly smitten with Norma Jean.
Although their faces have just a hint of detail, the women seem to be laughing like thrill-seekers, caught up in their shopping frenzy.
Welker held onto her own hat, a wide-brimmed thing that the wind kept catching, as she took notes: Install the piece on a pedestal; paint it a “natural” metallic color; wait till the Walnut Street-intersection issue is settled, before installing “Shopping Daze.”
But one question hung in the air, unanswered, posed by a young man as he walked by: “Has anyone wondered whether Asheville has the most outdoor public art of any city in the state?”