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Archive for Sunday, November 7, 2004

Buffalo bridge: worthwhile art or waste of money?

Merits of Lawrence artist’s plan debated

November 7, 2004

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— A Lawrence artist trying to gussy up the aesthetically challenged ribbon of Interstate 70 that slices like a canyon through the middle of this city is taking some whacks from the locals.

Painter, crop artist and landscape muralist Stan Herd has an international reputation for doing art for peace's sake.

In recent years, he threaded the needle between the warring governments of the United States and Cuba to create renowned landscapes in Havana.

But when Herd unveiled a proposal for a 26-foot-tall steel sculpture of an American bison that would span a bridge in the capital city, the negative comments came like a stampeding herd of buffalo.

Richard Tremblay was one of many residents who voiced an opinion.

"To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie," he said.

The Topeka Capital-Journal ran an editorial under the headline "Highway art -- No, thanks."

Simmer down

Herd, along with famed Kansas art promoter and national television journalist Bill Kurtis, said everyone needed to take a deep breath.

"Whether it's my sculpture or not over the archway, the idea of the money being used to significantly enhance the look of our state capital should be pretty roundly accepted," Herd said.

His rendering of the sculpture was simply an early draft that was part of a grant application for $1.5 million in highway beautification funds, he said.

If the grant is approved by the Kansas Department of Transportation, Herd said there would be many opportunities for residents to say what the project should look like.

The buffalo sculpture is part of a proposed four-blocklong public works effort that would include landscaping with native grasses and art works along Interstate 70 as it winds beside downtown Topeka. Herd has joined with Kansas State University landscape architecture students for the grant.

An eyesore

Currently, the best description for that segment of road lies between non-descript and downright ugly.

Kurtis, with whom Herd has collaborated on art projects in Sedan, said the buffalo sculpture was a "glorious idea." The stylized buffalo would connect Kansas' past and future, he said.

Criticism of public art is nothing new, said Kurtis, who lives in Chicago. Millennium Park, a showcase of interactive public art that recently opened in the city, was criticized until it opened, he said. Now it is a tourist mecca.

"It is a success. The trend of creating concentrations of public art as attractions for tourists and looking at art in an economic way has sort of exploded with Millennium Park," Kurtis said.

But some have complained that the $1.5 million for the Topeka project would be better spent in other areas, such as education or social services. Officials, however, said the grant funds were tied to highway enhancements. In other words, the money would be spent for road beautification in Topeka or somewhere else -- but wouldn't be spent for other purposes.

Where the buffalo roam

For his part, Herd said the buffalo had become an important image in an artistic movement to depict the prairie. He said American Indians called prairie fires Red Buffalo.

And he said the capital of Kansas, a state that has the majority of the world's remaining tallgrass prairie, should be linked through art to the buffalo.

Tim Green, city engineer for Topeka, echoed praise from other city and downtown officials who liked Herd's idea and were surprised by the initial public sentiment against it. That part of Topeka "needs something," Green said.

"If we are going to spend the money, we didn't want to just throw a few flowers here and there. We want something that the next time you drive through Topeka, you say, 'Hey, I remember that,'" Green said.

Herd said he hoped the project would move forward and that an agreement on the design could be reached.

"I don't like fighting," he said, then added, "I'm not afraid of a fight either."

Grant winners will be announced in May.

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