Public art: a binding force for good in society

October 20, 2017

Outdoor public art offers an opportunity for communities to put their best foot forward. Things like beautiful plantings, sculpture and outdoor paintings invite us to pause in our daily activities, drink in an image and feel how it rests in our brains.

Sculptures of accomplished people can remind us of the qualities that brought them reverence. If I were asked who in Delaware's Cape Region should be honored with a sculpture, I wouldn't hesitate. Cheryl Blackman. She would be placed prominently on the Boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, near the WCTU fountain, and the piece would depict her doing what she did best: selling tickets to benefit those in need, dressed in holiday garb, her costume only outshone by her smile. She forgot her own limitations, cultivated contagious cheerfulness, enjoyed the accomplishment of work, and smiled and showed selfless appreciation right up until the end.

Qualities like that - attributes to share with children - deserve permanence and celebration.

On a long bicycle ride to Michigan in late summer, a wide variety of public art pieces halted the rhythm of our progress. They provided welcome resting places, and gave us opportunities to learn and reflect.

Along the Maryland and Pennsylvania border, simple concrete cubes arranged artistically and linearly celebrate the surveying achievement of Charlie Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. For hundreds of thousands, that installation has made for a hiking, bicycling or walking destination combining history and outdoor recreation. It has also boosted the tourism economy for nearby communities.

In Battle Creek, Michigan, in the center of the city, the nation's largest sculpture dedicated to the Underground Railroad also serves as a learning attraction for thousands each year. It celebrates the courage of individuals and families fleeing slavery, and the people who sheltered and concealed them in their journey to freedom.

Near Muskegon, along Lake Michigan, we stopped and walked around a tall, colorful sculpture along the edge of a freshwater marsh. On one side of the sculpture's many faces were the sails of vessels long a part of the maritime character of the area. On the other side, the sculpture became trees in honor of a natural resource that been a steady and sustainable resource benefiting the state's economy.

On a broad green public lawn overlooking a placid harbor in downtown Saugatuck, also in Michigan, a cluster of tall, red, metal figures rises from the grass. Some small, some large, all abstract and randomly juxtaposed - even now they make me think about them as a family, or a group of friends enjoying being outside on a sun-drenched day, their spirits joined by their mutual appreciation of the beauty of their surroundings. And in that appreciation of them, so too is our spirit joined to theirs. Art can be a unifier like that.

In Holland, Michigan, along the warm-water-piped main street that never freezes in winter, another artistic cluster seeks our attention on a busy downtown corner. With a little imagination, you almost hear them before you see them, despite their frozen silence. But they are sculpted musicians, upright and in the full throes of a joyful piece, singing and playing their instruments with the passionate contentment of an ensemble combining its talents to create art much larger than its individual parts.

A stiff north wind would blow their music southward to the Macatawa River. There, several colorful disks line either side of the crossing known as Unity Bridge.

At the southern end of the bridge, a tall sculpture by Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg welcomes visitors into Holland. The disks of various colors, and the sculpture, celebrate the growing ethnic diversity of the small city first settled in the 1800s by Dutch immigrants. Titled "Uniting Sun," the unpainted metal sculpture includes five vertical, rough, supporting elements. They look different, but they are of equal length. Nestled among them is a full sun - the sun that shines on all equally. It's optimistic, it's inclusive and it's constant.

Cheryl, herself a form of living art, would like that.


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