Sunday, March 21, 2010

Art on the Way: The Barton Barriers

Some folks are wondering what the heck this 'Art on the Way' stuff I've been talking so much about. Here's the story so far:

My brother Steve, who is about 13 years older than me, is a sculptor. He moved to Austin a few years ago to help me care for Lynda during her passing and he decided to stay. He opened up a sculpture studio, which he calls Atelier 3D, to make a living by teaching sculpting classes. He has done pretty well so far. He's managed to keep the operation going while working on his own body of work.

Over the years, he has worked in almost every medium there is, from steel, wood and particularly ceramics. He made a whole series of figurative sculptures, which he called 'Vens' (short for Venus) while he was in California.

Then when he first got here, about three years ago, he started making what he called 'book shrines' which were essentially elaborate ceramic boxes or display cases for his favorite books.

Currently, his work is with what he calls folded glass. He takes automotive glass--it has a layer of plastic sandwiched between two sheet of glass--and crushes it under the wheels of his truck. This causes the glass to crack into intricate patterns, but it doesn't fall apart because the plastic holds it together. Then, he folds the glass into abstract shapes and links the pieces together with polished aluminum bolts, buckles and ties.

Then, about a year or two ago, he came up with an idea he calls "Art on the Way". The idea behind this project is that there are many unused public spaces in and around town (Austin, but it could be anywhere). These are small bits of land that developments and streets and utilities have rendered useless for anything other than just taking up space. For example, when an intersection is enlarged, sometimes there will be a tiny triangle of land that is 'left over' when they finish with all the pavement, curbs, etc. So it just sits there. Sometimes there is a bit of grass or some scrubby trees on it, but a lot of times it's just a patch of dirt.

Steve's idea is to use these discarded and unnoticed spaces as places to put art, specifically sculpture. Now, we do indeed have a good bit of public sculpture, but it's just the sort of thing you would expect, like a monumental sculpture of a local musician and another one of a giant abstract bat. The musician was Stevie Ray Vaughn, by the way, and he was indeed one of the greatest blues guitarists ever (he died in a helicopter crash a number of years ago), so his sculpture is very naturalistic. The bat came to Austin because we have one of the largest Mexican Freetail Bat colonies anywhere in the world living right under a central bridge here in town called the Congress Avenue Bridge.

All that is to say that sculpture in Austin is and has been so far a relative uninteresting affair. Steve's idea is to change all that. So, his first project was something completely different. He decided to make a monumental sculpture out of something we see so much of here in the US that we really don't 'see' it at all any more: the street. Specifically, he hit on the idea of using traffic barriers, something so ubiquitous that we almost never really notice them other than to avoid running into them. Now, there are a lot of varieties of traffic barriers, ranging from cones to barrels to Yodocks.


These are a particular type of traffic barrier, made entirely of that nearly-indestructible plastic that they make the cones and barrels out of, but in a rectangular shape, and hollow so that it can be filled with water or sand for stability. The advantage to these is that they are cheap to make and easy to put in place. They are not too hard, so if someone runs into them, the damage to their vehicle is minimized. They are often linked in miles-long chains on the highway, dividing two lanes in construction zones. Again, we see them all the time. So much that we no longer really see them.

Steve's idea was to put these Yodocks up off the road in a sort of whimsical arrangement that is reminiscent of Christo's many works. He envisioned a long strip of them, sprinkled, as if by a giant, along a bit of unused and unnoticed land on a street in South Austin called Barton Skyway.

Here is the location: Barton Skyway & South Lamar

He needed more than just a few of these Yodocks to pull this off, however, so he called the compnay to see if they would be interested in loaning him a few of the barriers for his art project. He suggested that it could be a great public relations opportunity for the compnay, and they agreed! In fact, they loaned him 37 of the barriers. Ordinarily, the company rents them for like $50 apiece per day, so this was a pretty generous contribution. Of course, they saw it as a publicity stunt and even had a reporter from the 'Construction Times' (or something like that) on site taking pictures and making notes for a trade mag story.

Speaking of contributions, Steve also planned to raise money for the project by applying for funding from the City of Austin. The City has a special fund set aside by ordinance to provide for art in public places. The money comes from the construction permits, and is intended to provide arts funding for new buildings in particular, but it is available to fund public art anywhere in the city. The two sculptures I mentioned above were also funded in part by the City.

There's a complicated application process and the projects have to be reviewed and approved by some kind of supervisory board, but Steve navigated the entire process and emerged with $4,300 grant. Of course, he had to turn around and pay the City about $700 of that for the necessary permits, but at least he got something.

He also raised money from other people, nearly $5000 in total. He went to the neighborhood association to get their approval and did. They even agreed to help with the installation, volunteering to help build it and provide the water that went to fill all those barriers. Steve went to the businesses around the site and got them involved as well. With all that support and a corps of willing volunteers, he set about making it a reality.

About a week ago, Steve, his girlfriend and collaborator Heather, and about forty or so volunteers, of which I was one, went to the site early in the morning and toiled all day to push, place, stack, strap and fill all 37 of the Yodocks, creating a monumental work of art:

As you might imagine, it was not universally well received. Many people who stopped to watch us work siad in no uncertain terms that they didn't like it and thought it was a waste of time. Well, fair enough, but at least it was our time that we were wasting.

And, it seemed like the discussion would stay in this area--that is, maybe it's a bit nutty but harmless all the same--until a local newspaper columnist picked up on it and wrote a 'review' that ran in the paper and appear online the following Monday.

John Kelso writes a kind of humor/local flavor column three times a week for the Austin American Statesman. For years he's written about 'good ol boy' sorts of things, like ugly trucks and old dogs. To be fair, he does often write about local art and happenings, especially if they are of the pseudo-weired variety.

Steve's piece, which bears the title "Barton Barriers" by the way, fit right squarely into Kelso's sweet spot, so to speak. Kelso made no bones of the fact that he didn't like it, which was a fair appraisal, since not everyone can be expected to get the joke, even humor columnists.

The problem that I had with his 'review' had to do with the fact that he made mention of the money Steve had gotten from the City as a reason for disliking the piece. Though he didn't actually do make the claim himself, Kelso left the door open for the 'wingnuts' to claim that this art was just another waste of taxpayer money. A boondoggle, they called it.

I couldn't let this go, so I wrote Kelso directly. And to my surprise, he wrote back! Not just once, but a couple of times. He was nice enough about it and, darn it, right about the money.
I took umbrage but I really needn't have. Kelso gently pointed out that the first rule of journalism is to mention the money, and that the wingnuts will come out no matter what you say or do. "It's what they live for" he observed sagely. Alas. Heavy sigh.

Even though I know that the real first rule of journalism is to spell the names right, I have to agree with Kelso about our common goals, journalists and artists: more readers/viewers.

Not everyone was as observant of human nature as Kelso. Others played it straight, missing the joke and playing into our hand simultaneously, thankfully with no hint of the irony.

Really? A $4.3K boondoggle? When senators and representatives routinely waste hundreds of thousands and even millions or billions (that's M & B!) of taxpayer money, now that's a boondoggle! This was just a little joke.

Except that the wingnuts don't 'do' jokes. Everything is serious and everything is political. It started with the comments to Kelso's story, then moved to the blogs, then the TV and Dallas radio stations all jumped on the bandwagon, each with the same 'fraud busting' theme. Even if we happen to live a fairly liberal city, it is still Texas after all.

Silly stuff. But as it turns out a lot of people are actually taking notice of the work.

Any publicity is good publicity, right?

1 comment:

bc said...

I think this whimsical art is so cool...I can hardly wait to see it! Thanks, Phlip, for your overview and the accompanying sites and pictures; that represents a lot of work in itself. Look out--here comes Art on the Way!