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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

November 16, 2022: Public Art: Two Midwestern Statues

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On the inspiring messages and missing histories of two linked statues.

Sculptor Marshall Fredericks (1908-1998) lived for much of the 20th century, and for much of the century’s second half was the nation’s preeminent creator of public statues and monuments. He created his first such public sculpture, the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain on Detroit’s Belle Isle, in the 1930s, but it was after his time in the Air Force during World War II that Fredericks completed the majority of his numerous, prominent public projects. These include Christ on the Cross at the Indian River (Michigan) Catholic Shrine; The Freedom of the Human Spirit for the 1964 New York World’s Fair (now relocated to near the US Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe Stadium); the Man and the Expanding Universe Fountain at the US State Department’s Washington, DC headquarters; and the two Midwestern statues on which I’ll focus for the remainder of this post: the Spirit of Detroit at the city’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Center; and the Cleveland War Memorial Fountain: Peace Arising from the Flames of War (also known as the Fountain of Eternal Life).

Both of these beautiful public statues/memorials feature inspiring, spiritual messages that clearly reflect Fredericks’ perspective and voice. Spirit of Detroit, dedicated in 1958, features a plaque that reads, “The artist expresses the concept that God, through the spirit of man is manifested in the family, the noblest human relationship”; in his left and right hands the figure holds symbolic representations of God and the human family, respectively. The War Memorial Fountain, dedicated six years later in 1964, features a central figure escaping the flames of war and reaching for peace, and surrounds him with (per Fredericks’ own statements about the statue) symbolic representations of an interconnected world: a bronze sphere that (like the sphere in the left hand of Spirit) reflects spiritual beliefs and stories; and four granite carvings that embody the world’s civilizations. These overarching messages and ideas would be important and inspiring in any setting, but certainly especially were in the depths of the Cold War, the strife and divisions of the 1960s, and other historical and cultural contexts of that post-war period.

There’s nothing wrong with public memorials and art that present such overarching messages and themes, such universe images and ideals. Yet at the same time, my favorite public statues/memorials, like the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, link broader themes to specific, local histories and conversations, and on that level I’m not sure these two Fredericks statues quite succeed. The War Memorial did include on its framing rim a tribute to the 4000 Greater Clevelanders who gave their lives in WWII and the Korean War (and has since been expanded to include casualties and veterans of other wars as well), which is a definite and important local connection. But outside of those names (and of course every city sent its own soldiers to those and other wars), I would say that both statues could be moved to other sites or cities and have precisely the same messages and themes, largely unaffected by the different contexts. For a war memorial perhaps that’s fitting, as war implicates and affects us all, and task of remembering and mourning is a truly shared one. But for a statue named Spirit of Detroit, I would argue that at least a bit more specific engagement with that particular city’s histories and stories, community and identity, would be a positive addition, one that could complement the inspiring overarching messages and present viewers with a sense of this unique American space at the same time.

Next public art tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

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