Public art in Asheville

To many who lived in Asheville during those days of downtown desolation, the sculpture came to represent the town’s resurrection.

Every work of art has a life story, and Asheville’s Energy Loop — the city’s first public sculpture — has a fascinating one. Controversial from the beginning, its modernist style proved grating to residents used to statues of Confederate generals on horseback. And now that the Pack Square Conservancy wants to boot the sculpture out of its intended home, controversy has flared once again.

It all began in 1971, when the Women’s Auxiliary of the Buncombe County Medical Society donated $1,000 to a new organization called Quality Forward. Jean Webb was the director of Quality Forward; Charlotte Lunsford was the chair of their Beautification Committee. And the money was earmarked for “public art or sculpture in downtown Asheville.”

If you didn’t live in Asheville then, it may be hard for you to imagine what an outrageously farsighted gesture this was. Downtown Asheville was literally boarded up. There was plenty of on-street parking, because the only folks downtown were those few who worked in the banks and lawyers’ offices. And after 5 p.m., the streets were deserted. There were no fancy restaurants, no galleries, and the Asheville Art Museum was lodged in the Civic Center’s basement; when the circus came to town, the pungent scent of elephant dung would enhance museumgoers’ pleasure.

The idea of placing public art in what was a virtual ghost town seemed preposterous to Ashevilleans who’d moved to the suburbs and were shopping at the mall. So for a long time, nothing happened.

Then, in 1980, the public-art issue was revived when part of Pack Square was demolished to make way for the Akzona Building (it’s now known as the Biltmore Building, for you newcomers). Virginia Winger headed up a special committee charged with looking into the possibility of erecting a sculpture in front of the Jackson Building. After a year, Elma Johnson and Rob Pulleyn took over the job. Quality Forward launched a fund drive to raise $15,000 from downtown merchants to hold a competition and install a work. The merchants contributed $160!

At that point, Quality Forward added another $1,000 to the pot and enlisted the aid of Betty Holden to raise more money for the project. The competition was held, and an impressive panel of judges was assembled: architect Charles T. Young of I.M. Pei’s firm; Harvey Littleton, the father of the contemporary art-glass movement; Asheville Art Museum Director Ed Ritz; Arts Council Chair Sally Rhodes; and longtime Asheville City Council member Norma Price. Together, the group made their choice: Dirk Cruser’s Energy Loop.

Cruser was new to Asheville. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’d gone to college, put in several years in the military, and run his own graphics business in California, where he’d started making sculpture. When his parents retired to Western North Carolina in the early 1970s, Cruser and his wife, Karen, followed. They bought property in the Swannanoa Valley and hired someone to dig a hole for their basement. Then Cruser took over and built their house himself, adding unique touches in nooks and crannies and over doorways. His art was not a thing separate from his life — it was his life.

To many who lived in Asheville during those days of downtown desolation, the sculpture came to represent the town’s resurrection. Soon after the piece was installed in City/County Plaza (after it was determined that the sidewalk around the Jackson Building could not support the weight), Asheville began to change: slowly at first and then at a dizzying pace, till it became once again the vibrant city it had been before the devastating stock-market crash in 1929 brought it all to a halt.

Not everyone was keen on Energy Loop, however. The Asheville Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was outraged by the choice of Cruser’s work. They wanted a replica of the mass-produced marble angel that once stood on the porch of W.O. Wolfe’s tombstone shop on the square. Their contribution to public art in Asheville now stands in front of the Art Museum.

And ironically, among the other artists who entered the public-art competition was one Bob Gursky — who’s now been chosen to repair Cruser’s work, which has suffered some over the years (Dirk died in 1996). “The only reason that there has been deterioration,” Gursky reports, “is that the piece has been subjected to shade and constant contact with moisture.”

Energy Loop is made of core-ten steel, a standard material for public sculpture. The huge work flanking the Federal Building is made of core-ten steel. And Gursky, who’s worked with steel for 35 years, is convinced that someone on the Conservancy board decided that the sculpture is ugly and would detract from the pristine kind of park they want. “The early drawings of the park showed the sculpture,” he says. “What changed?”

Around the time the Women’s Auxiliary donated that first $1,000, Harvey Spiegel opened a machine shop on the Leicester Highway. According to Spiegel, an engineer who’s spent his life dealing with metals, core ten is a far superior grade of steel to the kind used in bridges and for I-beams that support huge buildings. He states without hesitation: “It will weather and rust and then will stabilize; if it is aboveground, it will not deteriorate any further.”

Several calls to Conservancy board chair Carol King went unanswered, but the group’s spokesperson, Donna Clark, states unequivocally that the piece “is not suited for the park.” She referred to it a number of times as “playground equipment.”

For years, Asheville has promoted itself as an arts destination. But we have to wonder sometimes where all those promoters think art comes from; they don’t seem to realize that it’s created by human beings, people like themselves who dedicate their lives to enriching their community — sometimes not even knowing where the money to pay the next electric bill will come from.

And if Asheville has so little respect for an artist like Dirk Cruser and for the visionary women of the Medical Society, maybe we deserve the kind of sterile environment we’re about to get in City/County Plaza.

[Connie Bostic, a painter, has lived in Fairview since 1970.]

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