Mother Nature is no fan of outdoor artwork.
Despite ravaging rot, rats, lightning, wind, floods, rust, and ducks, hardheaded humans in Toledo still set up sculpture outside, all in the name of “harmonizing with the natural environment.”
The sculptures at Toledo Botanical Garden are examples of public art caught in the middle of the Man vs. Nature conflict. Some art, like the garden's trademark 1974 bronze Woman With Birds stands strong. But other pieces have given their all. Visitors to this weekend's Crosby Festival of the Arts may miss Small Park With Arches and Watching for the Wind, two stalwarts from the past that are now gone.
Dick Boers, a former city forestry department head who helped form the fabulous, 56-acre garden, said he knows the life-and-death dramas behind the artworks as well as anyone still walking.
For years after its 1989 commission from sculptor Roy Wilson, Watching for the Wind floated like three skinny yellow sailboats on the garden pond. The 13-foot steel sculptures were anchored to the pond bottom in summer, and taken indoors in cold weather.
Then the ducks struck.
“One day, someone noticed one of [the sculptures] floating very low in the water,” Mr. Boers said. “The ducks were pecking away at the foam flotation material underneath it. Apparently, ducks are rather eclectic in their eating habits. And since then, I don't know the number of times [maintenance workers] replaced the floatation in there with things that were not supposed to be subject to duck attack. We finally pulled it out altogether two years ago.”
The sculpture was supposed to spend this summer at the University of Toledo, where engineering and sculpture departments agreed to study its “conservation issues” and find a final solution. Unfortunately, the big yellow floats never left their garden shed, said sculpture professor Tom Lingeman.
“I never heard from the engineering professor. And my students voted, and decided to do bronze casting instead of conservation this summer,” Mr. Lingeman said. “We haven't followed through. But we hope to pick it up again in the fall.”
Meanwhile, artist-in-residence Barbara Miner last summer used a $2,000 Arts Commission grant to float four plant-box sculptures on the lake, using water-garden techniques developed by ancient Aztecs. Muskrats attacked first, and chewed holes in the foam boxes from beneath the water. Later, a rainstorm broke one 5-foot sculpture loose from its mooring and sent it downstream into a neighbor's yard.
So far this summer, the muskrats, carp, and water birds dwell peacefully in an artwork-free pond, Mr. Boers said.
“The Miner piece was a temporary project, intended only for that season,” he said. “I don't much care for temporary things. I can't see all that trouble and money, and they disappear after a few months. That's why I'm so happy with the Laurie Spencer piece.”
Ms. Spencer built Phoenix Cairn, an 8-foot, 2-ton hut of clay, sand, straw, and fiberglass in the shade garden in 1989. It wasn't meant to last forever, but when it fell to pieces within months, the artist traveled from Oklahoma to rebuild it, using another mud formula the second time. With minimal maintenance, the second “hobbit house,” meant as a temporary artwork, has stood for 12 years, offering children a play space within the somewhat adult-oriented garden atmosphere. It cost the garden only $2,600 and a load of donated materials.
The garden gets similar value from Arborus Nine, a grove of tall wood-laminate poles that stand at the garden's Elmer Drive entrance. Akron artist Harry Wheeler made the work in 1976; he was later hired to create entranceway signs for Old West End Commons and International Park. The Botanical Garden has maintained its Wheeler work. But the International Park sign, signifying a lake freighter to some, hockey sticks to others, was found in April to be rotten at ground level, a victim of 18 years of neglect. Arts Commission Public Art Coordinator Marc Folk said it's at the top of this year's list of 16 conservation projects.
Another Botanical Garden sculpture on that list is Ruth, a pretty woodland girl made of steel who's stood outside the Crosby Conference Center for many years. It's too shady there for her. Rainwater pools at her rusty toes. Her concrete base is crumbling.
“We'll give her a new home soon, out in the garden,” Mr. Boers promised. “Someplace sunny, where she can dry out after it rains.”
The outlook isn't so bright for Small Park With Arches, a favorite spot for romance and weddings since 1984. An Arts Commission crew tore it down two weeks ago. The wood and stone installation was beyond repair, damaged by windstorms, lightning strikes, rot, and “just plain old age,” according to Arts Commission Art in Public Places Committee documents.
“I'm pretty sure it's in the scrap heap now,” Mr. Boers said. “If I had a favorite, that would've been it. ... It's not beyond hope. An architect made a scale drawing before they took it down, so it can be replicated. It will be replicated The Arts Commission has some money saved up for it.” Records say the sculpture cost $20,000 in 1984; in 1999, rebuilding costs were estimated at $38,000. There's talk of forming a committee to get the job done.
“But `when' is the question,” Mr. Boers said. “It's a major undertaking. And a piece like this needs a very aggressive maintenance program.”
Even after all these years of entropy, Mr. Boers still campaigns to add sculptures among the hosta, columbine, yew, and peonies. He stood proud next to Empathy, a portrait bronze dedicated just a week ago near the garden headquarters
“Sculpture is becoming just another part of creating gardens,” he said. “Creating a garden has much in common with creating sculpture. They both are three-dimensional art forms, artwork people can be involved in. They complement each other.”
The Crosby Festival of the Arts continues today until 6 p.m. at the Toledo Botanical Garden, 5403 Elmer Drive.