The 10-foot length of “Burro With Bird on Shoulder” was wrapped in whitish fabric before Copper Tritscheller’s bronze sculpture’s unveiling in a Central Park ceremony this morning, as if against the chill. The veil looked like it was hiding a very tall, very thin person on a deceptively simple pedestal that looked like a cube of concrete. Deceptive, because that pedestal is actually 3,600 pounds of concrete drilled down 2 feet deep, a foundation designed to let “Burro” withstand 200 mph winds: “Burro”‘s innocence and seeming fragility are deceptive, too: it’s not for nothing that Bird is seeking him out for refuge.
A little after 9 this morning, at Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland’s signal, the five City Council members joined artists Harry Messersmith and Tritscheller and unveiled “Burro,” the inaugural sculpture that is to be the first of five big works that will form a sculpture garden in Central Park, realizing a dream of artist Tom Gargiulo and Arlene Volpe and their Gargiulo Art Foundation–a dream for art in public places fermenting for a decade, with many other sculptures and art works already on display elsewhere around town. Gargiulo is contributing $100,000 of his own to the foundation’s plan for the sculpture garden, and hoping to raise an equal amount from donors: the city is not on the hook for any of the money. ‘Burro’ in particular is dedicated to the memory of the late Richard Schreiner and his wife Arlene.
“Art in public places is so very relevant for us all,” Holland told the crowd of artists, donors, council members, staffers and others gathered at the unveiling site, with City Hall as a nearby backdrop. “It is treasured because it identifies our community as a place that values culture. Community art ties us together in a simple, uncomplicated way. It makes us happy and it makes us think. It gives us an opportunity to communicate and to engage in a larger conversation.”
It can also make us perplexed, mocking, even angry, as some–just some–of the early reviews of “Burro” went, judging from reactions on this site when the sculpture was first revealed in an article two weeks ago. One commenter called it a “demonic goat.” “A joke,” “hideous” and “satanic” were among other less welcoming reactions–all par for public art’s course likely since, for all their magnificence, this horse or that bull in Lascaux’s caves struck at least a couple of Stone Age commenters the wrong way.
“It’s the same old thing,” Gargiulo said. “Art is unique. It’s different. It’s not familiar. So whenever you have something that is not the status quo, people are going to have a lot of questions about it. A [perfect example would be how Vincent Van Gogh’s work was not liked. The impressionists’ works, and today people have them hanging in their homes. ‘Nude Descending a Staircase‘ started a riot in , and today people like it, maybe not all people. There’s still some people that are upset with it.”
Duschamp was famous for his shocking works, one of them a urinal he called “Fountain.” Critics and philistines loved to bash him. The New York Times called Duschamp’s painting “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Teddy Roosevelt derided it as inferior to a Navajo run in his bathroom, which he decided to call “A well-dressed man going up a ladder.”
That’s what art does at first “because it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s different,” Gargiulo said. “And then it grows on people. I think ‘Burro With Bird’ will grow on people.”
The sculpture, oriented to face City Hall but positioned at the center of a circular path that allows looking from every angle, near and far, is one of many burro works by Copper Tritscheller, the New Smyrna Beach artist who’s also done a lot of work with bats (the flying kind, not the baseball kind).
“I kind of like the idea of the burro walking,” Tritscheller said. “It’s probably even like a Walt Disney leftover childhood fairy tale where animals walked and talked with you, but it was also to celebrate how we’re alike rather than to see the differences. For me when people see something they relate to, they’re more open to understanding it.” She tries to make bats less frightful for the same reason. “We sometimes can be apprehensive of things we don’t understand, so if you and I look alike, if we’re walking, then, OK, you’re a little bit more familiar.” So she thought of giving animals a few human characters to entice the eye, give the work a second look.
She refers to “Burro” in the masculine, though that’s up to the viewer. There are no anatomical suggestions to frighten parents with their young children. “Some people think it’s more feminine,” the artist says. “I think I just use ‘him’ mainly because I had a horse, Christopher, and I think Christopher kind of is a little bit of my muse in everything that is donkyish, because he was a little bit of an ass.”
Artists are not always the best source of explanation for their own work. Other artists, other eyes, are better suited to that end–an end with no end, since an art work may be interpreted and commented more copiously than the Talmud. This morning, two artists gave “Burro” two vastly different interpretations–one earthy, the other aesthetic. Messersmith, three of whose sculptures will soon join “Burro” in Central Park, gave the morning assembly his creation story of Tritscheller ‘s Burro and Bird.
“They’re our friends,” Messersmith said. “It occurred to me that the bird lives in our air space, and came down to earth to invite burro to come to the sky. The burro lives on the ground and its feet remain firmly planted here. So the bird invited the burro, maybe stretch up and stand up and join me in the sky. Well, burro said, I can’t do that, but I can provide a perch for you. So they’re friends, they’re our friends, and they share this beautiful environment for us. And that’s ‘Burro With Bird On Its Shoulder.’” (Gargiulo, Holland and Tritscheller all credited Messersmith for being the force that breathed life in Gargiulo’s vision.)
Messersmith described the sculpture to the whole crowd. Artist JJ Graham, who owns Salvo Art House in Bunnell and breaks boundaries in speech as much as in art, described the sculpture after the ceremony, to a reporter. “I love it man,” he said. “The only thing I can compare it to is like maybe reading Lewis Carroll, you know it’s got that magical animal come to life, and who would think that someone could make a burro look that elegant? If you look at the negative shape and the line quality and how elegant that is, the head of the bird, it’s like there’s a sense of unity of life there. I loved what Harry said about earth and sky and how grounded that Burro feels. It’s a gorgeous piece. And I need to go online because if people are complaining about this, they should go down and protest the big red rooster in front of the Chicken Pantry. That’s a public piece of art. You don;t see trolls coming out and freakin–it’s ridiculous, man. This is gorgeous. I want to go on and say hey, how come you guys aren’t making a big deal about the big red rooster where I have breakfast, assholes? You know? This is like–kids are going to love this, they’re going to make up stories about it. I would have loved to walk through a park as a kid and go wow, what is that?” He dismissed the few naysayers “feeding off this negativity.” He said no one complains of the urinals in the public bathroom nearby–a wry reference to the Duschamp look-alikes.
“My fear is that they’re going to spoil it for the sculptures that are coming,” Graham said.
To Holland though, “Burro” is just the beginning. She said it would “soon be the talk of Town Center,” showcasing the area as Palm Coast’s new Innovation District and symbolizing the creativity the council is hoping to foster there, with culture flavoring the future: “This is our vision for Town center,” Holland said, “a mix of high-tech companies, housing, the park, the arts, coffee shops, entrepreneurs and retail in a walkable neighborhood. It is accessible and has the infrastructure to support collaboration and innovation.”
The Town Center Sculpture Garden at Central Park is part of the city’s and the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s Art in Public Places initiative. The non-profit foundation is seeking donors to join the effort. For information, call the foundation at 386/466-0617.