Same Art, Changing Communities

by Jenna Riehl

Does Kalamazoo’s public art still represent us as a public? Renowned sculptor and educator Kirk Newman came to Kalamazoo as part of a University of Michigan extension program in 1949. By the mid 1970’s, Newman had already installed two of the most recognizable and well known outdoor sculptures in Kalamazoo. He created People, located outside of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, between 1973 and 1974. Two years later, commissioned by the religious communities surrounding Bronson Park, Newman created one of the Bronson Park fountain sculptures When Justice and Mercy Prevail, Children May Safely Play. Located nearly within eyeshot of each other, the two pieces provide an interesting commentary on contrasting views of public representation. We, as the public, must ask ourselves if these pieces represent the public of Kalamazoo today.

Kirk Newman, When Justice and Mercy Prevail, Children May Safely Play, 1976, bronze

People is a large cast bronze sculpture of twelve thick people striking exaggerated poses while at a social setting. Children May Safely Play is also a large bronze sculpture, consisting of nine naturalistic children each placed atop a podium on one end of the fountain, with a broken and fragmented slate representing an emergent figure coming out of the water in the far corner. Originally, the committee that commissioned the work was composed of representatives from the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic congregations surrounding Bronson Park. [1] Both of Newman’s Kalamazoo works represent human life through the use of religious aspects, naturalistic figures, and serene settings; Children May Safely Play portrays the idealism of youth, while People illuminates human interactions through the use of large, exaggerated depictions. [2]

Kirk Newman, People, 1973-74, bronze

The initial focus of the two pieces is the subjects. People captures the viewer’s curiosity with a line of intermingling adults. Because of the line structure, the viewer first sees a generalized group of adults, before being forced to focus on specific interactions between figures. The nine life-like children in Children May Safely Play at first glance are the obvious subjects. The children seem so life-like because Newman created them from models of actual Kalamazoo residents in the seventies.These nine children, schematically placed in the middle of a park, symbolize the ideals of life in two ways. First, children are symbols of virtue and innocence. Second, the children created by Newman are of a diversity of races, genders, heights, and ages. This represents the ideals of equality because we, as a community, embrace our differences. These ideals are still important as well as respected in our community. People, on the other hand, depicts adults full of imperfections. Newman shows certain ways that these not so ideal humans hide their imperfections. For example, there is a man wearing a paper bag on his head. He could be hiding himself from the woman that he is encountering with. I do not believe that hiding who we are is something that is admired within a community.

The placement of these subjects in their respective spaces is the next thing to take note of. The children in Children May Safely Play are all perched atop their own pedestals to show safety. The adults in People are all firmly rooted to a single platform by thick, heavy legs and feet. This shows that we are all burdened with our own issues, whether its physical or mental. These imperfections, ranging from personal to communal, should not be praised as imperfections but individual qualities. However, this chaos represents the uncertainty and confusion that comes into view with the hyper-realist style that was popular during the 1970s.

The relationship between the figures in the two pieces also tells the viewer much about the artist’s intentions and the expressive content in each work as a whole. These intentions are complicated because not everyone in the community can connect with them. The children are placed opposite the oversized figure within the fountain mentioned earlier. This figure is a fragment and seems to come in and out of focus because it is not as intricately sculpted as the children countering it. It is a giant rectangular prism with intricate patterns sculpted in it. According to an advertisement for the sculpture’s unveiling, the figure is meant to symbolize mankind’s persistent faith and hope through the ages. [3] Those who do believe in a higher being see that being as always present and always watching over to ensure that the ideals of life are upheld. The way that the figure doesn’t actually come close to interacting with the children, however, represents how mankind is ultimately in control of its own destiny. As a 21st century community, should we let this singular, 1970‘s Judeo-Christian aspect represent all the different cultural beliefs within the community? Newman stated in 1976 when the work was unveiled, “The city was coming to terms with blacks and whites living in the same spectrum. I hope this helped make the adjustment.” [4] This was Newman’s intent over 30 years ago, but this community is no longer “coming to terms with” this idea of racial assimilation – it is upon us.

Throughout the past decade, the public sphere suffers from much criticism due to what is acceptable representation and what can or cannot be idealized. I find this interesting when speaking about public art representing the public. Though public art may not directly represent everyone within a community, it is a sense of what the artist or owners feel about their communities at the time of the work. But, as centerpieces within our community, we should consider if these sculptures still represent us generations later.

 

Notes:

[1] Jane T. Kremers, When Justice and Mercy Prevail, Children May Safely Play (brochure, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, 1992).

[2] A Bicentennial Sculpture (brochure, Kalamazoo Foundation, June 1976).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted in Mike Arents, “Open Air Art,” Kalamazoo Gazette, June 1986. In Kirk Newman artist file at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

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