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CHARLOTTE HAPPENINGS – Seven Wonders of Charlotte Public Art

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History, character and culture of the Queen City are all represented in varied public artworks defining Charlotte’s sense of place.

Public art in Charlotte defines our community with its multi-layered textures, colors and bearing serving as a metaphor for the varied tapestry of life here.

Collectively public artworks contribute to Charlotte’s sense of place. Some speak to the legacy of the city’s forebears, others to the promise of our future and still others showcase the wonders and splendor of artistic creation.

Here are seven significant Charlotte public artworks, each embodying an important essence of Charlotte, each reflecting our vision of ourselves.

 

  1. The Four Statues at Independence Square

Flanking each corner of the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets, Charlotte’s historic trading crossroads and the highest elevation point in the city, are four 5000 pound bronze sculptures towering atop 25 foot-high granite pedestals.

Installed in 1995 and privately funded by the Queen’s Table, an anonymous philanthropic local arts group, the quintessentially Charlotte sculptures are the work of internationally renowned artist Raymond J. Kaskey.

Kaskey performed meticulous research in creating “Four Statues” employing the Roman “genius loci” tradition. Inspired from historical, cultural and social context found in Charlotte’s rich history, three of the four figures represent important elements of Charlotte’s past and the city’s economic development.

“Commerce” portrays a 19th century prospector panning for gold – a nod to the city’s significant ties to its early mining days. In a whimsical tip to the city’s banking roots, Kaskey depicts former Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan in a secondary figure.

“Industry” features a female mill worker from Charlotte’s early textile factories. Children at her knees depict child laborers, toiling well before codes restricted their employment.

“Transportation” depicts an African American railroad worker – Kaskey’s proclaimed favorite because of the well-defined figure and subtleties in its context. Close inspection reveals a clasping of the man’s hands in such a way to resemble the specific U-shaped train coupling in use at the time.

Each of these giants face “Future,” a statue representing Charlotte’s promise of tomorrow. Her upward gaze with an infant raised high in her arms speaks to the generations to come.

To fully enjoy these works, passersby are well served to linger at each, noting the rich detail in the height of the midday sun. See if you can spot the “Hornet’s Nest,” at the base of “Future,” a nod to Charlotte’s rebellious Revolutionary War nickname so called by the British.

  1. The Firebird

 Immediately upon its unveiling in 2009, the Firebird, Niki de Saint Phalle’s giant whimsical mirror-encrusted sculpture, was unofficially exalted with Charlotte landmark status.

Ever-immortalized in countless Charlotte-selfies, the gleaming “Disco Chicken” is a photographer’s dream.  Perched along the plaza at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the “Firebird” (its actual artist’s title is “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur l’Arche” or “Large Firebird on an Arch”) draws visitors in with its inviting reflective call. Day or night, front, rear or underneath – the bird shines from any angle against the terra-cotta skinned museum.

The artist was friends of the Bechtler family whose contemporary collection of mid-century European and American artists fills the jewel box museum. More than 7500 mirrored glass mosaic tiles enrobe the sculpture, purchased by museum patron Andreas Bechtler specifically to front the museum’s entrance.

Months prior to the installation, a life-sized fiberglass maquette was moved to the museum plaza to help determine its ultimate location. Afterwards the maquette found a reprieve from the waste-bin, taking residence in an open field at Bechtler’s Mountain Island Lake home where it stands lonely sentry today.

 

  1. La Cascade

Another classic Charlotte public artwork, “La Cascade” has ties to both the Bechtler family and Firebird artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

An enormous kinetic mash-up created by Swiss artist, Jean Tinguely, “La Cascade” soars more than 40 feet high inside the lobby of Charlotte’s Carillon Building. The fascinating and quirky assemblage of Charlotte artifacts, found objects, flashing lights, colored metal and rescued junk holds court in the lobby, surrounded by a rectangular fountain. It’s powered into motion by a series of levers, chains, cables, pulleys and no less than 15 motors that whir and wheeze adding to the work’s continuous whimsical solo ballet.

Tinguely, husband of de Saint Phalle, was commissioned by the Bechtler family to create the signature piece for Hester AG, a Bechtler owned company and developer of the building. Completed in 1991, “La Cascade” was the last piece Tinguely completed before his death that year.

Many of the discarded objects incorporated into the work hold special significance for Charlotte. The Concrete lion’s head at the fountain level was recovered from the demolished Hotel Charlotte, which formerly occupied the site of the Carillon Tower. Tinguely’s use of the tractor seat into the work is seen as tribute to the Queen City’s agricultural roots.

Viewers can’t help but notice Tinguely’s obsession with all things racing. Formula One trumped NASCAR for the artist here as the cherry- red Ferrari hood precariously bobbing up and down as part of the piece seems more at home on the European circuit than at a local track.

The piece is long a Charlotte favorite.

  1. Ascendus

One of Charlotte’s most recent entrants onto the public art stage, “Ascendus” by Oregon-based artist Ed Carpenter, rests precariously at a tilted angle near Charlotte Douglas Airport entry at Josh Birmingham Parkway at Billy Graham Parkway.

A Charlotte stunner since its installation in 2012, the 60 foot-high structure is made of steel alloy and laminated glass. Particularly captivating after dark, the illuminated high tech form is bathed in blue, red, green and white by fifty-four LED flood lights.

“Ascendus” resembles a huge flying wing or giant alien spacecraft and appears ready to take flight at the slightest provocation, adding to its mysterious allure. Charlotte’s position as a top international airport hub and significant transportation crossroads make the airport area an important locale for inspiring public art.

The work represents a collaboration between the Arts & Science Council and Charlotte Douglas Airport and is said by the artist to “suggest the excitement of flight and evocations of wings, feathers, and, especially, ascent.”

  1. Timeline

“Timeline” by Robert Winkler holds a special place in the history of public art projects in Charlotte.

Conceived, commissioned, organized and funded entirely by the volunteer Dilworth Community Association, the project rallied the neighbors to create a lasting and memorable statement with this remarkable public art.

Inspiration and raw materials for the project were both unearthed in 2009 when construction on East Boulevard revealed long ago buried trolley tracks that carried then new-suburbanites from Dilworth into Charlotte’s center city.

A short four years later, Ashville-based Winkler installed the swirling helix using the found rails which he fused together, aligning the evocative work toward Uptown from Dilworth in a nod to the past direction of the trolley line.

Painted a brilliant sunflower yellow, the work rises from the ground and appears to sway from its Latta Park resting place near the intersection of Romany and Dilworth Roads, giving the observer a sense of motion regardless the viewing angle.

Go ahead – let the kids climb atop – this is a piece of art that‘s meant to be touched.

  1. Metalmorpohis

One heady resident of south Charlotte’s Whitehall Office Park doesn’t go home at quitting time with the rest of his office mates. In fact, he never leaves his post here standing guard 24/7 through all kinds of weather.

Of course that’s what we’ve come to expect from one of Charlotte’s most recognizable and curiously cool works of public art – David Cerny’s Metalmorphosis.

The first public installation in America of Czech Republic-born Cerny, Metalmorphosis is a massive 31 feet-high, 14 ton, stainless steel, multi-segmented head and fountain. The 40+ head segments rotate independently 360 degrees – seemingly at will- creating surreal abstract images that engage the viewer from every angle.

Situated in a reflective pool, the work positively glimmers and is hauntingly lit at sunset making for brilliant photographs.

Quirky, contemporary and not without controversy, this piece of public art shows Charlotte to be unafraid of challenging the status quo.

  1. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg

It has been long thought Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, Germany (wife of Great Britain’s King George III) was a diminutive monarch with some records stating she was less than five feet tall.

No matter to sculptor Raymond J. Kaskey however, he wanted to be sure no one missed her greeting upon arrival at Charlotte Douglas Airport. He made her larger than life – much larger. The 20 foot high Queen reigned atop a tall pedestal, just outside the arrival doors at the airport from the time of her installation in 1990 to early 2013 when she was relocated due to airport construction and expansion. She’s currently not far from her original home, waiting patiently in between the East and West daily decks in an airy courtyard.

Her unusual posture in bronze, finds her crouched over, as if blowing in the wind – said by the artist to be from airplanes. The crown she holds high above her head represents the “Queen City.” And her presence at Charlotte’s prominent gateway signifies the city’s commitment to the arts.

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