Tuesday afternoon at half past 2, Flint artist Jjenna Hupp Andrews was hunched under the Kalamazoo Street bridge, along the downtown River Trail, untangling a cluster of mangled bodies, re-attaching arms and unsticking a baby from a woman’s head.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, went the buckled plastic bottles the bodies were made of.
“This hand’s totally flat and her hips are smashed,” she said.
She bent over a second figure. “They worked on this one, bent the wire. Now I have to figure out how the arm goes back in.” Andrews came to Lansing to repair her vandalized sculpture, “There Once Was a Land Flowing With,” part of ArtPath’s innovative array of public sculptures installed along the trail in early July.
The sculpture is a semi-fluid study in water’s primal role in human life, with strong references to the Flint Water Crisis and the importance of Lansing’s own stretch of the Grand River.
It’s also in a very public space where many people walk and bike and others frequently find shelter.
Over the last few weeks, several of Andrews’ human figures, formed of metal mesh and plastic water bottles, were taken from their places and mashed together into a grizzly-bear-sized, semi-transparent blob.
The “Flint Pieta,” a woman with a child in her arms in the manner of Christian portraits of Mary holding the dead Christ, was taken entirely from its “pedestal” (a plastic kiddie pool) under the bridge and crunched into the cluster of bodies several feet away.
“They put them in interesting positions,” Andrews said.
She took the carnage in stride. “This time, it seems more like stupid or drunk kids, playing around,” she said.
It wasn’t so funny in mid-July, when a first, more disturbing round of vandalism brought Andrews to the site.
“That time, it was malicious and hateful and very specific,” she said. “They smashed in faces and heads, removed feet and hands, kicked in the women’s backs.”
In the earlier round of vandalism, a woman lying on her side was twisted over a fence and her feet were missing. Another, sitting figure — a woman with a fetus visible in her belly through the clear plastic — was left with a smashed side and a beer can in her womb.
Two local trail strollers told Andrews that the child from “Pieta” was found hanging from a noose.
“That’s not just fun vandalism,” Andrews said, shaking her head. “They had to bring a rope.”
The “Pieta” child figure is still missing. On her July 20 visit, Andrews gave the array of figures a second iteration, turning them into embattled survivors. She moved the wounded figures together and joined their hands. She hunched the “Pieta” mother further, until she seemed to be staring at her empty lap. She re-positioned another smashed figure, a child, in a fetal position, as if he were traumatized.
It was not a pleasant task, but Andrews got an unexpected feeling of renewal from re-positioning the figures.
“At first it felt like being kicked in the gut, but as I re-adjusted the figures and worked with what they did, the rebirth from the vandalism added another meaning,” she said.
Andrews first turned to water as a theme in 2004, when she lived in Mount Pleasant and taught at Delta College and U of M Flint. “That’s not far from where Nestle is pumping water from the watershed,” she said. “The rivers and wells are going dry and trout streams are losing trout.”
She began to think seriously about water from many points of view.
“It’s not just politics,” she said. “There is a spiritual dimension — baptism, purification. Water is part of us, it’s our life and gives us our identity, especially in Michigan.”
But traditional media seemed inadequate to the task. She hit upon the idea that water bottles, melted and shaped with the help of a heat gun, were the ideal medium to embody the manifold links between people and water.
“I love art supplies and traditional media, but too many things go to waste in our society,” she said. “What are you going to do with water bottles? There are so many.” Later, the water bottle took on more significance for Andrews when it became an emblem of the poisoning of Flint’s water supply.
She decided that the theme of water would also be a natural fit for a sculpture that would go along Lansing’s River Walk.
Andrews encourages constructive engagement with her sculpture. She loves street art and deliberately positioned her “Flint Pieta” near some conspicuous graffiti under the Kalamazoo street bridge, including a swinging Spider-Man figure and a merry greeting, “Happy Grandparents’ Day.”
Soon after the sculptures were in place, someone put a cardboard sign next to one of the figures, reading “Homeless. Please Help.” ArtPath organizers asked Andrews if she wanted it removed and she said “No.” Many people thought it was an intentional part of the work.
“I thought it was cool. They added to it,” she said.
“The fact that people are interacting with it is great, even though the way they’re doing it isn’t so great sometimes.”
She knew the site was a busy River Trail link and a frequent hangout for people taking shelter, but didn’t expect so much interaction.
Wrapping up Tuesday’s triage, she painstakingly popped out a crushed hand and a flattened knee.
As she worked, the prolonged rattling and crunching of plastic drowned out the traffic noise from Kalamazoo Street overhead.
“Oh, they hooked them together,” she said, twisting two bottles apart. “It’s juvenile stuff.” She attached a missing leg to the child and restored it to its former pose, playing in the “river” of bottles.
She stood up to take a stretch. “Art is an easy target to take your frustration out on,” she said. “It was horrifying but I don’t think it was necessarily personal.”
Anyone who notes further vandalism on this or any of the other Art Path sculptures can notify Katrina Daniels at the Lansing Art Gallery at (517) 374-6400.