Concordia was installed Saturday at the Downtown Arts Center. Photos by Tom Eblen
Want to see Lexington’s newest piece of public art? Drive down Main Street to the Downtown Arts Center — and look up.
Sitting on the roof of the old Lexington Laundry Co., an early 20th-century art deco building, is a stack of 15 giant steel cylinders. They lean against a taller wall next door, a neo-classical 19th-century building that forms the center of the arts complex.
The 14,000-pound sculpture, called Concordia, is the work of DeWitt Godfrey, an internationally recognized artist and art professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
Godfrey and crane operators from Lexington’s Wilhite Ltd. spent 14 hours installing the sculpture Saturday, despite temperatures above 100 degrees. “They got very hot to the touch,” Godfrey said of the cylinders.
Godfrey left Lexington this week to cool off, but he will return to give a talk about the sculpture at 5:30 p.m. July 31 in the arts center, 141 East Main Street.
Concordia is typical of Godfrey’s work: creating cylinders by bolting together thick strips of Cor-Ten steel, an alloy that doesn’t corrode once it takes on a rusty patina. He stacks cylinders of various sizes, causing them to bend into unique shapes. Small cylinders are stronger and more rigid than big ones. Once in place and settled, the cylinders are bolted together.
“It’s fairly maintenance-free, which is a plus in the public art world,” Godfrey said, adding that the installation should last for decades.
“The process is not dissimilar from building a woodpile or a stacked-stone fence,” he said Sunday afternoon as he showed me the sculpture from behind as we stood on the arts center roof. “Your first priority is to make sure it is stable, doesn’t fall down and functions the way you want.
“The art is not entirely separate from the engineering,” he said. “It’s all about how the cylinders relate to the mass, their adjacencies and the supports.”
Before conceiving the piece, Godfrey spent time walking along Main Street, where he was impressed by the variety of architecture spanning more than 150 years. After the arts center’s architect and structural engineer made sure the building could support the weight, two steel beams were installed for the 18-foot by 28-foot sculpture to rest on.
In creating Concordia, Godfrey was thinking about buttresses, architectural structures that have been used since the Middle Ages to support walls by being built up against them. “Culture and community, they support each other; you don’t have one without the other,” he said. “If there’s symbolism in this, that’s what it is.”
The $72,000 project was a partnership between LexArts, the non-profit arts organization, and the 2010 class of Commerce Lexington’s Leadership Lexington program. Funding came from a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, private donations, LexArts funding and in-kind contributions.
It is the second major public art installation that LexArts has sponsored recently. Surface Reflections, a 2011 piece by sound artist Bill Fontana, allows listeners at a spot off Main Street to hear water rushing through Town Branch Creek, which is buried below.
As with any piece of public art, LexArts President Jim Clark knows that some people will love Concordia and others will hate it.
“Contemporary art is the hardest to appreciate,” he said. “But if taking pictures is any clue of people’s liking of this, they have been doing a lot of that.”
Van Meter Pettit, an architect and Leadership Lexington class member, loves the sculpture.
“It fits nicely in a historic streetscape,” he said. “It doesn’t overshadow the buildings. It’s whimsical but not disrespectful.”
The process also was special: a call was put out to artists worldwide, and more than 100 submitted ideas. Rather than being given a specific location and criteria, they were asked to create their own vision for Lexington.
Arts professionals culled the submissions to 14, and public input was gathered at the 2010 Creative Cities Summit and other venues to narrow the finalists to five, from which a Leadership Lexington class committee chose Godfrey’s proposal.
Clark said he wants to create a “museum without walls” of world-class public art around Lexington, by Kentucky and international artists. Godfrey said this approach, which gives artists the freedom to be creative, is the way to achieve that goal.
“From the very beginning, it was, ‘Where do you see your work?'” Godfrey said. “It sets up a wonderful range of what other things are possible.”