The road to ’Inspiration’
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
With sesquicentennial gift, public sculpture returns to Lansing
“What do you think it means?”
Bob Trezise, CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., had me on the spot. I was supposed to be interviewing him.
When things get sticky, stick to the facts.
“It” is a gateway-like arch 20 feet tall, made of polished stainless steel, cleverly curved so it changes shape from various angles.
In nine months, if all goes as planned, “Inspiration,” by California sculptor James T. Russell, will stand alongside the Grand River near the City Market as Lansing’s first major foray into public sculpture since the early 1980s.
The design was unveiled today by the Lansing 150 Foundation, which is giving the sculpture to the city as a (literally) monumental birthday gift.
The whole project, including site preparation, is expected to cost $275,000, of which about $125,000 has been raised so far, all from private donors.
But enough facts. This is art. What does it mean?
At Lansing City Hall, they’re circling the design with a quizzical grin.
“I’ve heard a few different interpretations,” Trezise said.
Does it embody a newly forged Lansing, rising from the old industrial center? Or a clean drop of water, symbolizing stewardship of nature? The latter would jibe with the sculpture’s proposed site on the Grand River.
There is a more piquant interpretation, endorsed by the sculptor himself. Let’s save it for the end of this story, after the kids are in bed.
Reached by phone in California, Russell said he’s used to “What is it?” speculation.
“I’ve had people say, ‘That looks like a brake shoe adjustor,’” he said. “They’re trying to see something in it. People will come to it with different ideas.”
Most of Russell’s monumental sculptures, scattered in about 40 cities around the world, involve vertical streamers of steel, striving toward “Excellence,” “Hope,” “Blue Sky” (actual titles) or some other aspiration you’d be a cad to oppose. Russell’s only other sculpture in Michigan is a narrow 15-foot-tall sculpture called “Nimbus Flight,” in St. Joseph.
“People have called my sculptures ribbons of shiny steel, and that’s OK,” he said. “Ribbons of shiny steel are beautiful.”
After a series of nasty battles over public art in the second half of the 20th century, many public artists are working outside the culture wars, skirting the edge between timeless art and meaningless ornament.
For Lansing, Russell said, a monument to this or that person or institution wouldn’t do. He said he deliberately avoided “specific subject matter,” keeping the 150-year time span uppermost in his mind.
After all, even the venerable Oldsmobile sprang up, thrived and came to an end within 150 years.
“You need something that looks new, not ‘now’ — something that will still look new at the 200 mark,” he said.
That’s exactly what Michael Harrison, heading the Lansing 150 Foundation, had in mind when he envisioned a gift for Lansing.
Harrison, a judge of Ingham County’s Circuit Court for 25 years and now a senior attorney at Foster Swift, said he wanted all along to use the money left after the city’s sesquicentennial events to commission a sculpture.
“My wife and I have done a lot of traveling,” Harrison said. “We’ve appreciated the dimension sculpture adds to communities.”
As the city’s birthday bash wound down in late 2009, Harrison found himself with a nice pedestal of cash for the stack that would be needed. The Dart Foundation earmarked $25,000 for the gift. The Rotary Foundation gave $50,000, and the Capitol Region Community Foundation chipped in $25,000.
“That was our starting point,” Harrison said.
To pick a design, Harrison assembled a mix of donor reps, arts people and downtown business leaders and developers.
Among those drafted into cultural service were developer Pat Gillespie, Christman Co. CEO Steve Roznowski, retired Greater Lansing Arts Council president Sue Mills, Accident Fund Insurance Co. CEO Liz Haar, associate dean Helen Mickens of Cooley Law School, Impression 5 Science Center director Eric Larsen, grants manager Claudia Deschaine of the Dart Corp. and City Pulse editor/publisher Berl Schwartz.
As liaison to the art world, Harrison tapped Roy Saper, longtime East Lansing gallery owner and art dealer.
It didn’t take Saper and Harrison long to bond over their favorite public sculpture: the giant silver bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park (Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”).
“That has to be the best public artwork in the world today,” Saper said. “I see it as a model for Lansing.”
“Cloud Gate” is the acme of soft-edged, postmodern abstract public sculpture, fun and interactive.
“When you have to have 24-hour security around a public sculpture, you know it’s a success,” Saper said.
Straightaway, Saper sent out a feeler to Kapoor, but the news wasn’t good.
“For hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’d get something that would fit in a bowling ball case,” Saper said.
(“Cloud Gate,” originally budgeted at $9 million, ended up costing from $20 million to $23 million.)
The next step was to find an artist who would work for Lansing’s “beer budget,” as Saper described it.
Saper pushed for two widely accomplished sculptors who specialize in metal work: Russell and Mexico’s Leonardo Nierman.
But other members of the committee, including Sue Mills, wanted to look harder for a Michigan artist.
Harrison and Saper spread the news to Michigan guilds and art groups.
“None of them were above a 3 on a 1 to 10 scale,
Harrison, Saper, Mills and Mickens all recalled a unanimous vote for the Russell design.
Mills said she was satisfied with the process.
“I felt Michigan artists had a fair chance, but when we looked at everything, this is the one that rose to the top,” Mills said.
Trezise said the riverside location is “perfect.”
Secondly, the city’s Parks Board will have to formally consider and vote on the location, because the site is on park property.
Mills said it often came down to money.
But money is not all that’s lacking.
The sculpture rested on a plaza west of the state Capitol for 22 years before being dismantled in 2002.
Mills doubts that Russell’s “Inspiration” will incite that kind of reaction.
Mills and other committee members also mentioned the public art scene in Grand Rapids as a model for Lansing.
Last summer, Helen Mickens was blown away
“Art like that becomes a part of people’s family history,” Mickens said. “It will attract a lot of people.”
Are the kids in bed yet? We promised one more interpretation of “Inspiration.”
This is no
Russell agrees that “Inspiration” is the tightest union of male and female he’s created yet.
“This sculpture is almost climactic in that sense,” he said.
“I’m not touching that one,” Trezise said.