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Guides to Charleston’s public art are going fast

Chris Dorst
At the Charleston Civic Center, a large message board on a massive base blocks the view of Jim Sanborn's 1980 sculpture "Elk Delta" at the corner Lee and Clendenin streets. The sculpture is one of 45 pieces of public art listed in a new guidebook.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It might top a local best-sellers list this week, except for one important detail: "Public Art: Charleston, West Virginia," the new guide to the city's outdoor sculpture, murals and more, is free.

And if you don't pick up one of the pocket-size guidebooks at one of the many FestivALL activities through Sunday, you might not get one at all.

The 86-page book catalogs 45 of Charleston's outdoor artworks, from Albert Paley's towering "Hallelujah" at the Clay Center to Joe Mullins' teeny "Mortar Man" tucked into a niche along the 100 block of Capitol Street.

Each piece gets a separate page, with a color photo and a brief description and/or information about the artist. A table of contents includes color-coded thumbnail photos, and maps of each neighborhood -- downtown, East End, West Side and South Hills -- show where to find the art.

The book was published through a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant aimed at creating an inventory of the city's public art and developing policies for promoting public art.

The first 2,000 copies arrived from the printer Friday, said Charleston Area Alliance Vice President Susie Salisbury, who helped obtain the grant and write the book.

"By Sunday they were gone," Salisbury said. "They were available at the FestivALL merchandise booth at all the major events, at Charleston City Hall in the city manager's office, at the Convention & Visitors Bureau. I think the Clay Center's are gone. They had their Family Fun Day on Sunday. They went out the door.

"Taste-of-All Charleston, the chili cook-off. And Taylor Books, the library and the Culture Center. The Culture Center was going to give them out on West Virginia Day.

"The second printing of 3,000 arrived Monday. We're holding some back for this weekend," Salisbury said. "Once they're gone, the PDF version will be available [on a website, PublicArtCharleston.org, which is not yet active] and we'll start looking for funds to reprint.

"It's a great problem to have. I'd rather see that happen than see them sit in boxes somewhere."

Producing the book was a team effort involving Salisbury, Clay Center President Judy Wellington and Naomi Bays of the Arts Council of Kanawha Valley. Pittsburgh art consultant Renee Piechocki wrote the first draft, and Megan Bullock of MESH, the West Side design studio, designed the book.

"I gave Renee a lot of information," Salisbury said. "Mary Jane Vanderwilt from the Beautification Commission gave me a lot of historical information, and Renee, as part of her NEA contract, pulled all that together."

Piechocki also contacted as many of the artists as she could find.

"We showed them their page of the guidebook," she said. "It was really wonderful. We heard back from nearly all of them, at least 20. They were really excited to be part of a book that Charleston was putting together.

"Some of them did this 20 or 30 years ago." Many were happy to find their work was still in good shape, she said.

"Jim Sanborn, who did the 'Elk Delta' sculpture near the Civic Center, was particularly pleased with the way it's been maintained."

While the book touches on the controversy that nearly prevented the installation of Mullins' West Virginia female veterans memorial, it avoids any mention of other artistic black eyes.

You won't read anything about the problems of "Charleston Arch," although Piechocki heard stories. City fathers had to raise it on concrete pedestals after post office visitors, apparently dazed by Charles Ginnever's optical illusion, bumped their heads on its steel corners.

Mayor Mike Roark came to the arch's rescue 25 years ago when postal officials wanted to move it to add parking spaces, although a sarcastic editorial writer suggested it be moved to the city landfill.

Ginnever still has some concerns for his arch. A tiny message at the bottom of the arch photo reads "Landscaping surrounding the sculpture still pending," Salisbury said.

After the sculpture was raised, Ginnever asked for some landscaping, Piechocki said. Apparently the city never followed through and, when he saw the photo, he asked again.

Sanborn's "Elk Delta" suffered an indignity 11 years after it was installed, when the Civic Center erected a large electronic message board along Lee Street that blocks the view of the sculpture from motorists.

"It just didn't occur to us anyone would do anything this dumb," a former beautification board member said at the time. Sanborn told the Gazette that while worse things have happened to his works elsewhere, he now includes nonencroachment clauses in his contracts. The message board, however, still stands.

Piechocki said there's only so much you can write in the 100-word book blurbs. "If you want to, you could add some of the more colorful information to the website.

"Obviously there's been a tradition in Charleston of commissioning both local and national art, so there's a mix of talented local and esteemed artists," she said. "It's an interesting mix."

Salisbury said she's been getting lots of calls about the book.

"People are looking at the art differently -- 'Hey, I didn't think about that.' I hope people enjoy it, pick up their copies. A lot of people are sending copies to people out of town. We're thinking of nominating it for several awards.

"It's produced the 'Aha, we didn't realize we had in the collection of art we have in Charleston.' And we hope it spurs additional public art in Charleston."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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