'Palo Alto 1' is newest addition to Lincoln's growing public art

John Buck pulled the last part of the black shroud away from 9-foot-tall bronze, the sun breaking through the clouds at the exact moment the sculptor revealed his creation, "Palo Alto 1."

The crowd gathered Tuesday in the Rotary Strolling Garden, 27th Street and Capitol Parkway, taking in Lincoln's newest piece of public art -- a sculpture of a nude female torso topped by an arrangement of lines, circles and curves.

Among those instantly taken by the piece was Santiago Cal, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln art professor who is an internationally exhibited sculptor who has been drawn to Buck's work since he was a student.

"It's iconic," Cal said. "What I responded to about his work is not only the power of the piece in revealing the human form, but also the surrealistic liberties he's taken to push it beyond the form into another realm. His work is full of symbols and they have a sense of mystery. I like that. If it's all spelled out, we'd look at it and walk away. You can look at this thing a thousand times and still wonder about what these things symbolize."

For Buck, the symbols above the torso represent an abstracted tree.

Several years ago, while on a trip to Israel with his wife, sculptor Deborah Butterfield, a museum curator told the couple that the Israeli military in Lebanon was intentionally targeting Lebanon's famed cedar trees with its heavy artillery. That inspired the "tree" above the figure, which, he said, serves as a way of viewing man's power over the environment and the brutality of war.

The tree shape also functions with the torso to create another aspect of the sculpture, Buck said.

"There was a tree shape and the combination of that tree and the figure, the way it is cut off level with the shoulders felt to me like a landscape," he said. "It's a kind of construct of a visual phenomenon you might see."

The figure taking a step forward, Buck said, is rooted in the late 18th century studies of motion by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge while the removal of the head is a reaction to the work of Robert Arneson, a sculptor of ceramics who was one of Buck's teachers at the University of California Davis.

"Arneson dwelt on faces, getting all these details," Buck said. "I've always felt there was a lot more to people than how they looked. I decided to focus more on how people are inside."

Hence the symbols that top Buck's sculpted torsos, most of which remain in their original wood form, carved out of jelutong, a type of wood that he said is very easy to carve and holds its form without splintering.

The wood version of "Palo Alto 1" was covered with a rubber mold which was then cast into the bronze that now sits in the garden just north of the Lincoln Children's Zoo parking lot. The bronze casting allows the sculpture to be placed outdoors -- "It liberates it from the gallery environment" in Buck's words, and turns it into public art.

"Palo Alto 1" came to the city via the Lincoln Partners for Public Art Development, a group that was created at the urging of Mayor Chris Beutler. Made up of public art advocates and private citizens knowledgeable about art, LPPAD raises funds for the purchase of art and provides guidance to the city's public art program.

Beutler said he's pushed for public art, not simply for the aesthetic, but for other reasons.

"It's part of a larger thing," Beutler said. "That larger thing is creating an environment, an overall environment that makes young people want to live in Lincoln, stay in Lincoln, raise their families here. That might be football or a cultural event or concerts or downtown or encountering contemporary art -- just altogether creating a richness of environment that indicates that this is a place that can compete on every level."

The $70,000 to pay for the Buck sculpture came, in part, from an Art Makers group that raises funds for the purchase of art under LPPAD. The Art Makers members who donate or raise $25,000 vote on the pieces to be purchased, with a ranked list of recommendations sent to the mayor for a final decision.

Art Makers funds are placed into an endowment with the interest used to buy art. As of March, LPPAD had raised $400,000 and hopes to raise at least $3 million, with a goal of purchasing one piece of art a year.

The purchase of "Palo Alto 1" was completed with money from the city's Winnett Fund, an endowment that is specifically designated for public ornamentation or decoration.

"In a community the size of Lincoln, money is always a problem," LPPAD's Robert Duncan said. "We'd love to have a $1 million or $2 million piece. But that isn't realistic. We have to find art, from younger artists or mid-career artists, we can afford that's of quality. We only send two or three to the mayor. The mayor is only getting great work. We'll find the art and we'll find the money."

Cost became an issue that resulted in "Palo Alto 1" coming to Lincoln. The first choice of the Art Markers group, "Intrude," a glow-in-the-dark bunny made of resin-covered stainless steel by Australian artist Amanda Parer, became too expensive. "Palo Alto 1" was the group's second choice.

"Palo Alto 1" is the second recent piece of public art to come through LPPAD. "Reflections," a nearly 20-foot tall stainless steel abstraction, is in the center of the western of the two roundabouts north of Memorial Stadium. That piece was purchased by the Lincoln Community Foundation using a private donation.

Public art in Lincoln didn't begin with the Beutler administration or LPPAD. It is rooted in the sculpture collection at the Sheldon Museum of Art. Some of that sculpture has been placed outside the museum since the iconic Philip Johnson-designed building opened in 1963.

The museum's outdoor sculpture, now recognized as one of the top university collections in the country, multiplied in the '80s and '90s, under the directorship of George Neubert, who now serves as an LPPAD consultant.

Sculptures by world-renowned artists brought to Lincoln in Neubert's tenure include Richard Serra's "Greenpoint," Mark di Suvero's "Old Glory" and Michael Heizer's "Prismatic Flake" all near Love Library in the center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. Sculptures also were placed on East Campus. Directors following Neubert also brought in outdoor sculpture, most notably Roxy Paine's "Breach," a stainless steel tree near Andrews Hall and "Wind Sculpture II" by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare on Antelope Valley Parkway.

"Taking art into the public area has been one of my focuses," Neubert said before Tuesday's dedication ceremony. "I think we've been able to transform Lincoln, going on campus, then off campus."

That transformation, he said, can be verified through an anecdote.

"When Nebraska went down to play OU several years ago, the band was on buses driving through the Oklahoma campus chanting 'where's your sculpture?' They were so used to seeing it on our campus," Neubert said. "There's no question it has become part of the community."

In addition to the purchase of the two pieces, LPPAD and its members also have been a part of bringing Shannon Hansen's "Pitch, Roll & Yaw," a paper airplane sculpture to N.W. 12th and West Adams streets, the entrance to the airport; recommended the re-siting of Catherine Ferguson's "Mbera" at 33rd Street and Sheridan Boulevard; and worked on initial digital art programming for "The Cube" in the Railyard.

It also reviewed the Tower Square design by Jun Kaneko Studios and the placement of sculpture near the Lincoln Public Schools District Office, the Sheldon Museum of Art and in the Haymarket.

Before the group was formed, LPPAD members served on the selection committee that chose "Candy Box" by Donald Lipsky for inside Pinnacle Bank Arena and a lighted 45-foot-tall sculpture by Ed Carpenter to be installed later this year outside the arena.

When the Carpenter sculpture is installed, it will be the ninth piece of public art placed in Lincoln in nine years that Beutler has been in office.

"We've used it differently," Beutler said. "We've used it for different purposes. In the West Haymarket, for example, the box of chocolates has representation of places around the state. It's used to create an image of the relationship between Pinnacle Bank Arena and the rest of the state. The piece that will go in the Pinnacle Bank Arena plaza this summer is more of a placemaker. It will be striking. The groundwater head at Union Plaza sends a social message, about groundwater, hydrology and conserving water."

Those interpretations won't be universally shared and public art often invites controversy. Before "Palo Alto 1" was unveiled, there was, for example, unfounded speculation that the symbols above the torso conveyed a pro-Muslim theme in a ham-handed attempt to link the sculpture to the nativist political uproar being fanned by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"It takes awhile for the general public to understand them at times," said Duncan, an art collector who has a notable sculpture collection. "The thing to think of is the cherry and spoon in Minneapolis. When it was sited, there was some controversy. Now it's a symbol of the city."

That sculpture, titled "Spoonbridge and Cherry," is by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the creators of "Torn Notebook," which since it was placed at 12th and Q streets in 1996, has become a downtown Lincoln symbol sans controversy.

"Torn Notebook" and now "Palo Alto 1" are among that sculptures found on the UNL campus, grounds of the State Capitol, downtown street corners and in parks for which Lincoln is becoming ever more recognized nationally and internationally.

"Our desire is to build Lincoln into a world class art city," Duncan said. "We're well on our way. I really believe that."

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