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Colorful Sculptures Dot City Streets

From the New York Times, Monday, August 20, 2001


CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Aug. 16 - When five nieces and nephews came to visit Beverly Minear here, she took them to do what millions of Americans are doing this summer: strolling through the streets, looking at funny statues.

The streets of Cedar Rapids have been decorated with more than two dozen life-size statues of couples modeled after the figures in Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." But these couples are nothing like Wood's staid Midwesterners. They range from Uncle Sam with the Statue of Liberty to a pair of punk rockers.

"There's a huge variety because they symbolize all kinds of things," Ms. Minear said as she snapped a picture of one of her nephews clowning with the punks. "The city has really embraced this whole project, and I'm amazed to see how many people are coming here just to see it."

The idea of placing these colorful sculptures along the streets of Cedar Rapids did not spring full- blown from some local planner's imagination. It is part of a trend that began two summers ago in Chicago and has become a nationwide craze.

The Chicago project, in which 340 life-size cow statues were placed along city streets, was a huge success. City officials said it brought Chicago $200 million in additional tourist revenue.

Numbers like that do not go unnoticed, and last summer a handful of other cities jumped on the animal bandwagon. New York copied the cow idea, working with a Connecticut company, CowParade, that has made money by importing the concept from Zurich, where it originated. Other cities worked on their own, including Cincinnati, which commissioned pigs, and Lexington, Ky., which went for horses.

This summer the craze has burst full blown over the entire country. Streets in dozens of cities are now adorned with life-size or larger-than-life figures of people, animals or things. There are lizards and flamingos, dolphins and salmon, angels and flying horses, and of course more cows.

The main force behind the rapid spread of these shows is not artistic but financial. Sponsors pay for the works, tourists come to see them, and when the show is over, they are auctioned for charity. The auction of the cows when the Chicago exhibition ended had been expected to take in $250,000 for local charities but raised $3.5 million.

Chicago is staging a second outdoor show this summer, "Suite Home Chicago," a display of 350 pieces of wildly decorated furniture. Popular favorites include an Egyptian throne and a sedan chair, complete with crimson parasol, perched atop a richly bedecked white elephant.

In all the cities, each piece of art is decorated by an artist or would-be artist. The figures are covered with gumdrops or mirrors, painted in homage to past masters or simply designed to make people laugh.

"Part of the attraction is artistic, and part of it is that it gives people a chance to interact with other people in a public place, which isn't that common these days," said Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. "People gather around these objects and start talking to strangers. That's very important to creating a sense of community."

Is it art? Detractors scoff at the very idea and dismiss the figures as decoration at best, kitsch at worst.

"It's hard to consider it real art," said Mary Gray, an urban historian, who has written extensively about art in public places. "Some of the pieces are made by artists, which is certainly one criterion for art, but the whole thing has perhaps gotten out of control. I don't think it's dangerous, but a lot of them are very ugly. Some of these pieces are even tied in to the stores they're in front of. It makes me wonder what's coming next year, and if it will be even more unappealing."

Others applaud these projects for giving artists needed visibility, raising people's awareness of art, helping local economies and serving as focal points for civic pride. Even critics admit that the projects can inject a welcome note of whimsy into city life.

Many artists welcome the chance to participate. Martie Holmer, an artist in New York who made a cow covered with images of Delft tiles for last year's display there, said she first considered the idea "really quite stupid" but was persuaded to participate after seeing the enthusiastic responses of friends who had visited Chicago.

"I decided it was O.K. to make it clever as long as it wasn't cute," Ms. Holmer said. "During that summer I met hundreds of people from Brazil, from China, from Iowa, even a homeless guy in a wheelchair. Every one of them absolutely loved the whole idea."

Charities have been drawn to the idea because of its extraordinary success as a fund-raising tool. The average bid for cows displayed in Chicago during the summer of 1999 was nearly $25,000, with the highest- priced one bringing more than $100,000. Buyers included business owners and people who wanted yard decorations.

Animals are the most common subject for this summer's displays. More than 200 lizards, some of them nearly six feet tall as they rear up on their back legs, decorate the streets of Orlando, Fla., in what organizers call a display of "Art Gecko." Forty- one sheep are the attractions at the "Ewe Review" in Rochester, Mich., which was once a center of the wool industry.

Mythological beings are also popular. Dallas is installing 200 interpretations of the winged horse Pegasus, three of them decorated by the well- traveled 60's pop artist Peter Max. Los Angeles chose angels, but while some found the display inspirational, one famously provocative local art critic, Mat Gleason, denounced it as "garbage on the streets" that reminded him of "a kid's finger-painting class."

Human figures have established a beachhead, too, and not just in Cedar Rapids. St. Paul is featuring 102 versions of Charlie Brown of the "Peanuts" comic strip, who is depicted wearing lavish jewelry, playing a bagpipe and working as a barber.

A project called "People Figures" has placed about 200 life-size mannequins on street corners and in malls and parks around St. Louis. One is a clown on a bicycle; another, an abstract group of figures, is sponsored by a mental health clinic and is intended to provoke reflections about mental illness.

Letters to newspapers about the St. Louis project reflect the same division of views that have surfaced in other cities. Most have been positive, praising the display because it "looks cool" and "makes me feel we are a vibrant community." But there are dissenters. One man wrote that artists who participated "should all be made pariahs, not just for the lousy art or whatever toned-down thing they want to call it but for making St. Louis just that much more difficult and humiliating for the people who take art, and the endeavor of making it, seriously."

In Baltimore, 120 six-foot-long fish decorate the street this summer. There is one with feathers, another painted with astral constellations and a third dressed like Elvis Presley, clutching a peanut-butter-and- banana sandwich in its fin.

"Not since Super Bowl mania painted the town purple and black has Baltimore displayed its goofy streak on such a grand scale," The Baltimore Sun reported.

A group in South Baltimore that is not connected to the project took advantage of it to create its own fish made of garbage as a complaint about poor refuse collection.

The idea for the Baltimore show, like many of those this summer, came from a local resident who saw Chicago's cows in 1999 and returned home determined to help stage something similar.

Cities that use creatures or objects other than cows plan the displays themselves, but those that choose cows work with CowParade, which bought the copyright from the originators in Zurich. CowParade provides undecorated cows and various forms of assistance in organizing the project.

"We're the largest producer of public art in the world," said Jerry Elbaum, president of CowParade. "There are a lot of copycats and a lot of different forms out there, but the cow has the absolute perfect size and dimensions. It's also probably the only animal in the world that is universally known and liked. If you're talking about fish, we don't have any connection with them except that we eat them."

Not all the projects are limited to a single city. One is spread over a 27- city area around Tampa. That region is nesting ground for most of the world's loggerhead turtles, and to honor them and raise people's awareness of their value, the local aquarium has organized a display of about 100 provocatively decorated turtle sculptures.

Local businesses pay $3,700 each to sponsor a turtle, or $2,700 if they know an artist who will work without charge or if they want their turtle decorated by schoolchildren. As in most cities, each artist is offered a cast plastic animal to decorate but may choose instead to start from scratch in wood, metal or some other medium.

"I saw it as an opportunity to combine public art with environmental awareness," said Jay Goulde, an organizer of the Tampa project. "I'm not wild about the cow-crazed merchandising machine that has made a lot of money off this for some people. But other than that, almost everyone is doing these projects for a good cause."

In just two years this craze has become so well established that Chicago, the city where it began, has opened a show at which objects from no less than 50 American and Canadian cities are on display. The show, appropriately housed at Lincoln Park Zoo, includes a shrimp from Beaufort, S.C.; a mermaid from Norfolk, Va.; a corn on the cob from Bloomington, Ill.; and a moose from Whitefish, Mont.

"An incredible number of people are coming into the zoo and having their pictures taken with these creatures," said Kevin Bell, the zoo director. "Something about them really seems to grab people."

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