Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe

Ah, Rene. This is not a pipe! Nor is that a glacier, nor that an anvil, nor are those fingerprints. Magritte said it so well with so few words. I gaze upon the refrigerator magnet and contemplate the tempest of words trying to describe David Middlebrook’s sculpture in Gordon Park. The tone of Tom Bamberger’s critique last month caused concern among Currents editorial staff, and the fallout of words are still drifting down upon our heads. A college student called to ask me about the artist selection process for the “statue,” as he called it, for a paper that he was writing. A young boy asked Middlebrook when he was installing the piece if he was the “thing maker.” A woman was dismayed that there was not a Polish symbol included. It makes me long for winter and a quiet time in Gordon Park. This is a time for the marble, bronze, and basalt to settle down on its foundation. For the winds to blow and the snow to fall and time to pass. This is a time for folks to walk in the park and get a feeling for the place again, with its new addition on the corner. I am tired of drive-by critiques. I am tired of Bamberger’s photos purporting to show the corruption of the landscape. The photos are not the sculpture, and the photos show a corner filled with green and quiet, when the actual corner is one of the busiest intersections within Riverwest, with thousands of cars and noise and buses going by. Go see for yourself. And let time be the judge. As to judgment and process: I was one of the people who selected the artist. I was the “neighborhood representative.” There were two Milwaukee County Supervisors — Penny Podell and Willie Johnson Jr. –a representative from the architectural firm that built the new pavilion, an engineer from the County, and several Milwaukee-based artists. We were given applications responding to a request for proposals for a public work of art for Gordon Park. The money ($50,000) would come from a percentage of the capital improvement budget for the park renovation. We were asked to review the written documents, and when we returned, we were shown a slide show of works of the artists. Names were not given, just images, in an attempt to keep the selection process unbiased. Our task was not to select a work of art, but an artist. You cannot separate yourself from bias completely, and I came with a preference for someone local. I said to friends, “I am not picking the artist from California.” The process is, of course, flawed, and an argument could be made that there is a better way to choose public art and artists. But you will not convince me there is any process that would produce results that would not meet with derision by some folks. So we looked, talked, voted and narrowed the list of candidates. I campaigned to have a local artist included in the finalists that would be called to present to the group, and they relented. The group liked Middlebrook’s work. It was decided we’d ask him to fly out and present with the others, even though he was so far away. The day came and the tough decisions needed to be made. It was obvious that my prejudice for a local artist would not win out with the group. David Middlebrook gave a dynamic presentation and impressed the group. There were other qualified candidates, but in the end most were impressed by Middlebrook’s knowledge of materials and his capability to deliver a landmark sculpture that met artists’, architects’, and engineers’ criteria for the work. In the end I gladly capitulated, duly impressed by Middlebrook’s skill and examples of his work. Most of the group strongly supported this artist, so it became a unanimous decision. Jury dismissed. But the process was not finished. Middlebrook developed a model and presented the model to residents for approval. Some comment was given, fingerprints were collected, and heritage associations were given at a community celebration (I guess there weren’t many Polish folks there). Middlebrook continued his process of designing and producing the sculpture you now see. The “thing maker” came and installed his work with the help of volunteers – citizen and corporate – and the words began to flow. There is no rush. We will have many years to contemplate and comment. Maybe these things are not meant to speak to us in a language that includes the tongue or the pen.