By Jamon Smith
From the national championship-winning head football coaches’ statues on the Walk of Champions to the large “Amaryllis” pink flower sculpture at Monnish Park, T-Town has more public art than many may realize, and it’s growing thanks to a Public Art Initiative in which The University of Alabama has played a significant role.
Craig Wedderspoon, UA professor of sculpture, said the University and city of Tuscaloosa have been working collaboratively to improve public art in the city since 2008.
“I was invited to be on a committee during the development of the Riverwalk to put together thoughts and art for along the Riverwalk,” he said. “That’s evolved into many other things that are still in the works.”
Wedderspoon said the public arts committee, which is led by Tera Tubbs, executive director of infrastructure and public services for the city; Sandra Wolfe, executive director of The Arts Council; Jim Harrison, of Jim Harrison Gallery; Amy Echols, the executive director of the Kentuck Art Center; and Wedderspoon, has helped the Public Art Initiative take off.
“I am thrilled by the progress of the Public Art Initiative,” Wolfe said. “Public art can add value economically as well as providing a sense of community.”
Wedderspoon said public art helps beautify a city whether individuals like the work or not. These places become visual breadcrumbs.
“Public art becomes gathering places,” he said. “It gets people more active in moving through their communities and visiting local businesses. Having public art out in front of a local business, like the mural on the side of Egan’s Bar, draws people.”
Public art is also an investment and can be an economic boon as people traveling to see it patronize local businesses.
“Studies have shown that today’s youth are not object oriented, they’re event oriented,” he said. “Rather than spending their money on possessions, they’re spending their money on experiences where they go places and do things. One of the things people do is travel to look at art.”
Tuscaloosa’s Public Art
At the behest of PARA director Gary Minor, UA students and an alumnus created the “Amaryllis” pink flower sculpture at Monnish Park and the kaleidoscope sculpture at Snow Hinton Park. Both were installed in October 2018.
What began as an elementary school art project called “Monster Makeover,” created in 2010 by The Tuscaloosa News and Children’s Hands-On Museum, has grown into an ever-expanding public art project called “Monster Takeover.” The project currently features 29 monster statues, about 4-to-6-inch tall, spread throughout downtown Tuscaloosa and the Riverwalk.
The idea for the little bronze monsters, brought to inanimate life by Wedderspoon’s sculpture students, stemmed from the city and Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama taking a trip to Greenville, South Carolina, about three years ago. There, they were inspired by a public art project called “Mice on Main,” which is a series of little bronze mice scattered throughout the city that’s become a tourist attraction.
“Our students really enjoy making the monsters,” Wedderspoon said. “It ties the city’s elementary school students and University into community.”
Exotic Bike Racks
For several years now, Wedderspoon and his students have been commissioned by the city to create custom, sculpted, functional bike racks that can hold 12-16 bicycles.
The first set of bike racks were placed in front of the bar 4th and 23rd. The second set went up in Alberta Park. A third, shaped like a coiling wave, will soon be installed on Sixth Street at Government Plaza.
A fourth bike rack that’s shaped like the infamous and elusive T-Town yellow python, will be installed in front of the gazebo on the Riverwalk near Another Broken Egg.
The public art on UA’s campus is plentiful. There’s the Walk of Champions statues, Denny Chimes, the bronze statue of retired Chancellor Robert Witt in front of Presidential Village, by Caleb O’Connor, and the Sculpture Garden on Woods Quad to name a few.
“The Public Art Committee has asked for constant input from the UA sculpture students on ideas for public art and how they can creatively be put into infrastructure planning,” Wedderspoon said. “They’re getting ready to begin construction on a new glass recycling drop-off downtown, and we’ve been working with them on some ideas on how art can be incorporated with that.”
Public Art Leasing
More than a year ago, the Public Art Committee and Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama started issuing public calls for proposals throughout the Southeast to lease artists’ sculptures at local Tuscaloosa businesses for two years, Wedderspoon said.
The second is the mural commissioned by Buffalo Rock on the side of Egan’s Bar.
The next sculpture, “Holt of Trees,” was by Kentuck blacksmith Steve Davis. It’s sponsored by Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers and in front of the shop on Greensboro Avenue.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are beautiful bronze statues at the Northriver Yacht Club,” he said. “There’s an elephant and all kinds of animals. Those are gorgeous pieces done by internationally renowned artists.”
There’s also the elephant in front of the new Mellow Mushroom, the mosaic at the old Mellow Mushroom, the murals inside the federal courthouse, Steve Davis’ work in front of the Children’s Hands-On Museum, the sculpture near the Bama Belle, the statue of Chief Tuskaloosa in the Tuscaloosa Public Library and the bronze statue of Deontay Wilder that will soon be installed at the Tuscaloosa River Market.
“There’s public art all over the place, and when it’s done right, it doesn’t stick out.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.