Public art fosters community ownership

IF recognition had a sound, it could have been heard echoing through the audience at a lecture on art and architecture at the Columbus Area Visitors Center last month. The sound was a collection of wistful “aahhs” as many of the older members of the crowd recognized the image of a circle of horses gathered around a tree in front of Richards Elementary School.

The image was one of many used by art critic and academic Michelangelo Sabatino during his talk, which was titled “Columbus Is Not a Museum.” It was used to drive home his point that art and architecture have more than aesthetic purposes but can be seen as reflective not only of the surroundings but of the people in the community.

In a sense, some forms can establish a personal bond with those people. Sabatino couldn’t have made a better selection to drive home his point. That an image of the 12 horses should elicit such a fond response is somewhat surprising since they haven’t been gathered around that tree for something like 30 years.

The herd was broken up sometime in the 1980s. It is believed that some of the statues were vandalized, others stolen. A portion of the original display is scattered about Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. — two inside the school and a third in the offices of Superintendent John Quick.

It also had a short life span on public view. The work was commissioned from a gift by J. Irwin and Xenia Miller in 1970. The sculptor was Sicilian artist Constantino Nivola.

The community’s attachment to the collection was reflected in its popularity among photographers and artists. Noted photographer Balthazar Korab used it in one of his celebrated images of Columbus architecture (a shot of a child standing atop one of the horses), and former Columbus artist Carol Wantz featured it in several of her collage paintings of Columbus scenes.

The horses are just one of several art forms that have elicited an emotional response from local residents over the years. It can be heard in the words many use in describing the city to others, the subject in question often referred to as “ours.” That word is usually reserved for only a few works. The community ownership of the statue “Eos” in the median on Fifth Street leading into Mill Race Park was symbolized in the grass-roots fund drive to purchase it from the artist.

On a personal level, I think of an unlikely art form — the printing press that was the anchor of The Republic building on Second Street from its beginning in 1971. The community immediately reacted to the vision of a mechanical product in action every afternoon during the workday. The attachment was strongest when the press was moved out of the building in the 1990s, causing many to wonder if the newspaper had gone out of business.

That attitude of communal ownership is at the heart of a recently announced project to help bring some of Columbus’ “lost art” back to life.

No one is planning to bring the press back into The Republic’s glass building or restore the horses around the tree at Richards, but Janice Montgomery, longtime teacher and former director of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Foundation, believes there is a way to restore two childlike figures to the small pond in front of the school corporation’s administration building on Central Avenue.

The figures, named “Puddles” and “Frog Pond,” became part of the community in 1988 when they were commissioned by former Arvin Industries Chairman James Baker as a means to reflect the company’s commitment to education and the children of the community. It was a fitting addition since the corporate office building began life in the 19th century as Garfield School. The 1988 expansion extended the building but maintained the same lines envisioned by original architect Charles Sparrell of Columbus.

The children at play, the pond and its fountain in the middle were an everyday sight not only to workers entering the building from a parking lot on 13th Street but also to thousands of motorists who passed it every day. The children playing at the pond were just part of a complex of art forms on the grounds of the headquarters. A line of other children formed a hand-in-hand row engaged in a game of crack the whip.

In 2000, Arvin was merged with Meritor Inc., and the local headquarters were moved to Michigan. Several years later, the former headquarters building was sold to the school corporation. “Puddles” and “Frog Pond” were part of the sale. The “Crack the Whip” sculpture was eventually moved to the POW-MIA Plaza in downtown, but the two children by the pond remained.

Unfortunately, the little girl in the tableau was eventually stolen and her companion was put in storage because of vandalism. They were missed and still are, in part because of this community’s feeling of ownership.

Ethan Crough, who is the executive director of the school foundation, summed up that attitude from the perspective of those who work in the administration building.

“It was so refreshing to park in that 13th Street lot and then walk across to the building. Those statues just seemed to brighten the day and remind us of why we were doing what we do,” he said.

Janice wants to restore that feeling, not just for her former co-workers but for the community at large. She has proposed a fundraising project that would bring the little boy out of storage, restore it to its original condition and then re-create a companion for him.

The project would cost just more than $15,000, and the work would be done by Linda Peterson, a local artist who created the Jolie Crider Memorial located on the People Trail west of Columbus Regional Hospital. The project also will include security measures to protect the statues from theft or vandalism.

Currently the Bartholomew Consolidated School Foundation is serving as fiscal agent for the project, accepting donations that are earmarked for it. The foundation officials said the board plans to discuss the matter and potential additional involvement at a meeting Tuesday. Donations for the project should be sent to the foundation offices at 1200 Central Ave., Columbus, IN 47201.

Bringing back lost art is one way to reinforce the community attitude of ownership, but it isn’t limited to what once was. Continuing the ongoing process of adding to the collection of art that is readily accessible to the public, especially in our schools, helps to define the community in which we live.

Just ask any one of those people who were in the Visitors Center audience last month and said “aahh” at the sight of Constantino Nivola’s horses.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.