Statues of Limitations

Why do we get so worked up over larger-than-life likenesses of heroes and icons? Because they're less about stone and bronze than what we're made of.

May 2004By Comments

SOMETIME THIS SUMMER, PEDESTRIANS NEAR the intersection of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue in Austin will come upon a huge bronze of a berserk woman firing a cannon. No, she’s not trying to blow away the Goddess of Liberty perched on the Capitol dome, though that’s not altogether a bad idea. The bronze will commemorate an Austin innkeeper named Angelina Eberly, who, on that very spot in 1842, set it off, as they say, to warn her fellow citizens that a band of Texas Rangers was stealing the government archives. The Rangers were sent by that rascal Sam Houston, who believed that the capital of the young republic should be in his namesake city rather than the isolated village on the Western frontier that had recently changed its name from Waterloo. Angelina missed the Rangers but blew a hole in the General Land Office building and roused the populace, who chased down the thieves and recovered the archives. Her bold action is the reason that Austin is the state capital instead of a wide spot on the banks of the Colorado. Even so, a statue of Angelina isn’t every Austinite’s idea of a proper public monument. When a photograph of the model created by Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Pat Oliphant appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, some readers complained of the generous proportions of her bosoms. One irate caller said, “Angelina is no hoochie mama!”

Why all the fuss? Ask the folks in San Marcos who are in a snit because a statue of the legendary Texas Ranger Jack Hays has him wielding a pistol. This was no doubt the sculptor’s point: The old Indian fighter is celebrated for proving that the six-shooter was the ideal weapon for gunning down Comanche. Some people believe statues like this one send the wrong message, but messages, right or wrong, are what make them more than hunks of rock. They’re powerful statements of the values that a culture holds dear, as evidenced by the fact that every revolution concludes with an attack on the symbols of the previous regime. The toppling of the statue of Saddam in the center of Baghdad is only the most recent example of how people who have been betrayed take out their rage on their betrayer.

I’ve read that the gift from Major George Littlefield that established the Littlefield Fund for Southern History at the University of Texas was predicated on the condition that all statues on campus face south, in commemoration of his beloved Confederacy. Though statues have been installed over the years facing directions the major wouldn’t have approved of, mobs have yet to storm the Tower. At the southern edge of the campus there’s a fountain named for Littlefield, a monument much reviled by grand old man of letters J. Frank Dobie, who also suggested that UT turn the Tower on its side and run a porch along the front of it. I’ll bet that not one student in ten on the UT campus can tell you who Dobie or Littlefield were. On the other hand, almost everyone knows that when one views the statue of George Washington on the South Mall at just the right angle, the father of our country appears to be holding an erect penis rather than a sword. Supposedly, this was the sculptor’s revenge for some slight by his UT benefactors. (I wonder what Littlefield would have made of David Adickes’s 67-foot-high statue of Sam Houston: Before it was installed beside a busy freeway near Huntsville, the sculptor was asked to “fatten” the size of Houston’s crotch, no doubt as a nod to the general’s self-image.)

Curiously, the smaller towns and cities of Texas appear more aware of who they are and where they came from than do our major cities, Austin being an exception. Maybe it’s because the frontier hasn’t entirely vanished in places like Odessa, Fort Stockton, or Glen Rose, where giant fiberglass jackrabbits, roadrunners, dinosaurs, watermelons, mules, and pecans honor the past and proclaim the present. Lubbock has a statue of native son Buddy Holly, Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughan, and outside the library in Mason is a statue depicting Fred Gipson’s fictional Travis Coates and his dog, Old Yeller. Crystal City, proud producer of spinach, has Popeye, and Iraan has a huge dinosaur in its public park honoring V. T. Hamlin, the creator of the Alley Oop comic strip, whose inspiration for things prehistoric came while working as a newspaperman there. Public statues in cities, on the other hand, tend to be abstract works by famous sculptors, probably because the people who pay for them—developers and corporate executives—want monuments that offend no one.

When my wife, Phyllis, and I visited the Soviet Union in 1999, we joked about the number of statues of Lenin that had vanished since our guidebook had been published. One remaining statue we saw was a seventy-foot bronze Lenin that towered above Moscow’s Oktyabrsky Square. We speculated that it had been spared so that the old Bolshevik might be tormented a while longer by the sight of the neon-roofed Starlite Diner across the street. The motif of the diner was straight out of fifties America: bobby-socked waitresses serving frosted Cokes while Buddy Holly jammed on the jukebox. Elsewhere in Russia, we were surprised at the number of statues honoring poets and writers, long the conscience of that tragic country. A popular hangout for young people was a fountain just across from the Kremlin, where bronze sculptures illustrated characters from Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tales.

Texas has yet to produce a Pushkin or even a Joel Chandler Harris, but we have produced some first-rate writers, among them Lawrence Wright and Stephen Harrigan, both past contributors to this magazine, and the screenwriter Bill Wittliff, all of whom are founders of Austin-based Capital Area Statues, or CAST. The statue of Angelina Eberly is CAST’s second and most recent project, but a future one could be Varmint Park, where someday soon you may see Br’er Armadillo frolicking with Br’er Raccoon. Ten years ago CAST gave Austin its first monument to writers, Philosophers’ Rock, a larger-than-life rendering of Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb that sits near the entrance to Barton Springs pool.

The epiphany for an organization such as CAST struck Wright in 1991, when he happened to spot a cheesy concrete statue of Stephen F. Austin that had sat virtually unnoticed in a small park on South Congress for nearly half a century. Having observed firsthand in Europe and the Middle East how ancient cultures cherish their heroes, Wright realized how few public statues existed in Austin. Cities, he knew, express their identity and demonstrate their sense of dignity, humor, or humanity through the monuments they choose. The seated figure of Hans Christian Andersen, reading his stories in New York’s Central Park (usually with a child or two nestled in his lap) somehow marries the genius and the spirit of that great city. Wright remembered the Pioneer Woman statue in his boyhood home of Ponca City, Oklahoma, a bonneted mother holding the hand of her child and striding into the future.

As fate had it, someone took a sledgehammer and demolished the statue of Stephen F. Austin before CAST members could hold their first meeting. Bowing to whimsy, they declared that the attack on the Father of Texas was a “brutal but aesthetically defensible” act and went ahead with their business. At their second meeting, Wright recalled one Jeremy Bentham, who died in the nineteenth century, had himself stuffed, and willed his body to the University College of London, which wheels it out from time to time. Harrigan suggested that they recover Austin’s head from its resting place at the Parks Department and carry it from meeting to meeting in a bowling bag.

Once it was decided that Philosophers’ Rock would be CAST’s first project, raising the money to pay for it wasn’t a big problem. Twenty-one donors paid $7,500 each for bronze miniatures of the statue and an acknowledgment on the real thing. But gathering support for it was. “Even though it was a gift, it was tough selling the idea to an opinionated portion of the populace,” Harrigan told me. “We weren’t naive. We knew there were all sorts of currents of thought, but we were surprised by the vehement reaction.” Some people argued the monument would desecrate one of Austin’s most beloved locations (never mind that it sits in an open space away from the pool, about halfway between the men’s locker room and a hot-dog stand). Others complained that sculptor Glenna Goodacre had belittled Dobie and Bedichek by putting them in bathing suits; Webb, who didn’t swim, has his trousers rolled up. One sculptor approached by CAST rejected the project as “distasteful and degrading” to the three icons. Way-serious artistes objected that the statue was figurative, a postmodern pejorative. If Goodacre had made the trio look like a plate of spaghetti instead of three guys, the work would presumably have been acceptable.

In fact, Goodacre captures perfectly three old men locked in conversation, their friendship, the pleasure they share in enlightened company, and this magic place unspoken and obvious. A decade later you’d swear the statue had been there forever. Like any enduring work of art, it has gradually come to dominate its surroundings. Small children swarm over its bronze surface or cuddle in Bedi’s lap, pretending he’s reading to them. When Phyllis and I were there in December, posing with our dogs for our Christmas picture, we decided that permitting kids to crawl over public statues should be written into law.

This summer CAST must weather the new controversy over Angelina Eberly. “It was an idea we’d been kicking around for years,” Harrigan says. “The problem was that none of us had a vision of what she should look like.” Wittliff had previously commissioned Pat Oliphant to do a sculpture of storied Texas writer John Graves and suggested that the artist might have some ideas for Angelina. “He sat down and did this sketch,” Harrigan says, “and it was magic right from the beginning.” Most of the people who have seen the sketch or model have rallied behind the project, but to no one’s surprise there have been critics. Some think the idea is frivolous and some find it bewildering. Then, of course, there is the matter of Angelina’s balcony. When the complaints filtered back to Oliphant, he sketched his reply in a typically caustic cartoon. Titled “A Fine Fine Arts Committee,” it shows a rumpled group of citizens debating Angelina’s prominent points in language that risks the Federal Communications Commission’s wrath.

So how will CAST top itself? Varmint Park seems safe, but other suggestions are fraught with peril. Oat Willie, the endearing but goofy cartoon symbol of Austin in the sixties, carries the baggage of drugs and hippiedom. Cabeza de Vaca is seen by some as a white European conqueror. To my mind, both criticisms are lame: Austin is what it is and what it was. The statue of limitations on political correctness should have run out long ago.

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