Sculpture City

(above) Temple Mayan by Linda Howard, photo courtesy of Sculpture Fields

By Holly Morse-Ellington

Cities and towns across the country are reimagining the ways steel and concrete can transform downtown landscapes into outdoor galleries. From behemoths like Chicago and Detroit to more modest entities like Hamilton, Ohio and Lakeland, Florida, community development is aligning with museums and sculptors to provide an architectural facelift through art. There’s even a term for it – artitecture.   
And when it comes to installing sculpture outdoors, Chattanooga is all in.
With outdoor sculpture collections at the Hunter Museum of American Art, the River Gallery Sculpture Garden in Bluff View, the city-spanning Riverwalk, and Sculpture Fields’ dedicated 33-acre public park, you can’t step foot in Chattanooga without feasting your eyes on enormous works of art. And fortunately, the city’s outdoor sculptures not only capture our imaginations, they foster conversation and community and fuel social and economic change.

Party Dress outdoor sculpture by John Petrey in Chattanooga

(above) Party Dress by John Petrey, photo courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga


First Steps: City Sidewalks

Spotting sculptural art along walkways in Chattanooga wasn’t always the case. Historically, individuals and organizations had been the predominant investors in the commissioning of public artwork, and that was limited. Yet, there were numerous cultural, communal, social, and economic reasons for expanding public artwork and outdoor sculptures.

“Prior to 2003, while there was public art in Chattanooga, it was fairly limited,” says Katelyn Kirnie, director of public art for the City of Chattanooga. “We had masonry brick sculptures, like the brick couch in front of Ben & Jerry’s and the train at the Choo Choo, as well Jim Collins’ fountain outside the Bicentennial Library entitled Volumes and Tow Truck outside of the International Towing Museum, but there was room for more.” In 2003, there was a strategic visioning process that was informed by the community. As a result, new pieces, such as the Luminous Light Masts by James Carpenter for the Chattanooga Pier, entered the picture.

“The city has stepped up and increased their support of public art including outdoor sculpture over the last several years,” says Kirnie, who estimates there are approximately 80 outdoor permanent artworks. “Having these pieces provides access to amazing quality art and artists in an environment that is completely open to anyone. Public art offers a more natural experience – sparking a sort of childlike wonder that allows you to explore and engage with the art.”

Outdoor sculptures encourage conversation and promote commonality and social consciousness. They can function as invitations, an open-for-business sign that stimulates economic growth and draws people to an area. Kirnie attributes public art for kickstarting Main Street’s revitalization. “Just placing sculptures along the sidewalks in front of a vacant storefront signaled change and encouraged businesses to come in,” Kirnie says. “It signaled creativity – that this is a welcoming and vibrant space.”

(above) Bette Davis Eyes by John Henry, photo courtesy of Sculpture Fields

Expanding the View: John Henry’s Field Of Dreams

Also devoted to this spirit of exploration is John Henry, an internationally renowned sculptor who became founder and curator of the largest sculpture park in the Southeast.

In 2006, Henry envisioned a public space whose lush landscapes could play backdrop to incredible works of art from both local and international sculptors. To fund the park, which was officially established in 2012 as Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, a capital campaign was initiated, drawing major gifts from local families and supporters. National gifts were made as well, including a $100,000 grant from the Atlantic Foundation. Today, the park hosts 45 sculptures – and a multitude of visitors who picnic and practice yoga, bending in ways that resemble the geometric twists of steel surrounding them.

When Henry founded Sculpture Fields, he was focused on building a collection of outdoor works by sculptors working on a 20-foot-or-larger scale. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, whenever there was an outdoor sculpture exhibition, they would bring pieces out and put them on pedestals. It was just outdoor art placed outside. So we were extremely focused on scale,” he says.

“We’re very conscious when we place a piece to pay attention to the visual environment behind the piece – the full 360 degrees,” says Henry. “Every piece we select holds its own, no matter where you’re viewing it from. The goal is for pieces to be omnipresent instead of holding a specific position somewhere.”

For example, although constructed in 1981 for a previous location before installed at Sculpture Fields, Henry’s Bette Davis Eyes, with its elongated peaks and valleys, spans a 70-foot oxidized steel reflection of the mountain ridge visible just above her brow.

(above) photo of Isaac Duncan by Dotson Commercial

Paving the Way: Celebrating Open Space and Open Dialogue

Another prominent sculptor known for his outdoor work is Isaac Duncan III, a Brooklyn native who received his MFA from the University of Kentucky before moving to Chattanooga to study under John Henry. “I always say that I received my PhD from the school that John built,” says Duncan, President of the Mid-South Sculpture Alliance. “Working for him, I gained a tremendous amount of information and skill that helped me continue on the path of sculpting not only in a larger format but also in the public realm.

“In looking at my pieces, I want people to have a sense of movement. I want a person’s eye to move around a piece, below a piece, go around the piece. When I do my grinding strokes, I accentuate the form the way that I want your eyes to move,” says Duncan. “Some of the forms that I do, I place them in ways where they jut out in one way or another, requiring you to have to walk around the piece to fully see it and enjoy it.”

Portal Hex-Al outdoor sculpture by Isaac Duncan III in Chattanooga

(above) Portal Hex-Al byIsaac Duncan III, photo courtesy of Duncan Sculpture and Services


Matriarch outdoor sculpture by Isaac Duncan III in Chattanooga

(above) Matriarch by Isaac Duncan III, photo courtesy of Duncan Sculpture and Services


Beyond the visual cues of his sculptures, Duncan also infuses his work with meaningful context. His 18-foot tall stainless steel Matriarch on East Main Street elicits ideas of maternal strength, but there’s another layer of meaning beneath the metal surface. It’s an alloy that Duncan identifies with because it consists of many elements. “I, myself, am a person of color who has roots from the Caribbean, and the Caribbean is a mixing bowl of a lot of different cultures. When my parents refuged to this country, they infused their culture into me, but I also gained cultural influence from America, so I’m a mix of a lot of things too.” 

Ultimately, Duncan hopes his artwork triggers a sense of commonality among people. “If I can get a person to look at a piece and accept that piece as it is, then I like to ask the question, ‘How hard is it for you to accept the person who’s next to you?’ I think we’re slowly losing what it means to connect,” he says. “So I find it’s my job to keep creating pieces that will intrigue people to find those connections.”

OK Buoy outdoor sculpture by Roger Halligan in Chattanooga

(above) OK Buoy by Roger Halligan


Adding to the dialogue of public sculptures is fellow sculptor Roger Halligan. Halligan relocated from North Carolina to Chattanooga in 2007 as part of the ArtsMove Chattanooga Grant provided by Allied Arts (the precursor to ArtsBuild). The change from rural to urban setting influenced the way he thought about boundaries and warnings inherent in city life. A neighbor who saw OK Buoy, a piece he’d completed for the Riverwalk, provided the title. Halligan recalls his neighbor saying, “When I look at it, there’s this small circle at the lower left hand corner and these extensions that come off of it like a hand saying, ‘OK.’ I thought, what a better thing to walk by than something that says, ‘It’s OK.’”

For Halligan, the permanent nature of outdoor sculpture develops a familiarity that prompts a form of nonverbal communication through sight and sound. “There’s something very unthreatening about having art in a public space that people can just walk by and pay no attention to if they so choose, or they can open up to it,” says Halligan. “It’s a quiet conversation, but it’s still incredibly valid. My hope is that it takes people to places they might not normally go.”

That conversation also has the potential to evolve. “Outdoor sculptures really are a three-dimensional, physical part of our environment,” says Halligan. “You can see them at different times of day, in different seasons, different lighting situations – they become much richer when you view them in these varied circumstances.”

(above) Deer Crossing by Jim Collins

Complementing Nature and Connecting the Community

For Jim Collins, sculptures can provide designated gathering points. If you stand beside one of his nine Mile-Marker functional pieces, you might set goals for walking or running the sculpture-marked 7.5 miles. “The nice thing about sculpture outside is it gives you a wayfinding monument. People enjoy the ‘Mile-Marker’ I did on the Riverwalk because they meet there and determine how far they’re going to go,” says Collins, who has been producing artwork for 50 years.

“Sculpture takes up real space, and it has this ability to organize that space,” says Collins. “Think about Albert Paley’s new piece down by the river (Resurgence). Everything around it is organized by that piece being there. It’s a very human endeavor.”

Many may consider Collins’ Three Shades Of Green, located on the University of Tennessee Chattanooga campus, an endeavor of social consciousness. Three student-like figures sit on top of green turbine blades as if in search of solutions to today’s environmental concerns.

Collins’ approach toward sculpting is one of longevity and harmony with the environment. “Sculpture needs to complement nature and fit in with nature, but still be man-made,” he says. “I try to make all my sculptures out of stainless steel, powder-coated for color, so they’ll go on for years and years.”

For the Hunter Museum, an importance is placed on an opportunity for audiences to view pieces even when visiting hours are closed. “Our public sculptures are a way for the entire community to have a wonderful art experience provided by the Hunter while they’re exploring the city or as a part of their daily routine,” says Nandini Makrandi, chief curator for the Hunter Museum of American Art. “Having 24-hour access is another benefit of public sculptures. People can encounter them at times when it works for them. The Hunter is an essential part of the community, and our public sculptures only add to that community connection.”

Over the last 14 years, the Hunter Museum has installed off-site sculptures around the city, such as Arriving Home at Miller Plaza and Place in the Woods, an architectural bronze and brass canopy thicket at Renaissance Park. “Incorporating sculptures into the landscape makes art available to everyone and broadens the opportunities to encounter art by weaving it into the fabric of daily life,” says Makrandi. “Public art creates community pride and a sense of place. It’s part of what makes Chattanooga unique.”

(above) Composer by Heinz Aeshilmann, photo courtesy of Sculpture Fields

Encouraging Momentum

There’s consensus among sculptors and organizations that Chattanooga’s commitment to permanent and rotating collections of public art is special. “Chattanooga is ahead of the curve for a city of its size,” says Henry. “New York, interestingly enough, doesn’t have much art in public spaces if you consider the size and population.”

“This city is really blessed to have the Lyndhurst Foundation and Benwood Foundation as well as other foundations in a public/private partnership that goes on to provide Chattanooga an extensive collection of incredible, significant pieces,” says Halligan. “It enriches our lives. It’s visual music that we come across.”

Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, credits the way foundations, elected leaders, neighborhoods, and individual residents have come together with a shared value for public art. “From a personal standpoint, I’ve lived in Chattanooga for 30 years, and the growth in public art has been amazing,” says Bowers. “It’s almost like a flywheel. Once it gets going, it picks up speed, and I think the people build upon that foundation. The community is recognizing the value of arts in general, and that extends to public art.”

There’s also a sense that public art spurs economic growth. “Everybody’s favorite example of economic development in the city is Volkswagen because it’s such a grand slam homerun,” says Bowers. “If you took, as it were, a vacuum cleaner across Chattanooga that had everything to do with the arts: music, museums, performances, public art – if it were all swept up and eliminated – I don’t think Volkswagen would be here. They have a workforce that can work anywhere, and people don’t want to live in a place that’s void of arts and culture. Public art is an integral part of the patchwork of arts and culture in Chattanooga.”

“Public art creates community pride and a sense of place. It’s part of what makes Chattanooga unique.” 

– Nandini Makrandi

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