Top 10: Enjoy the Shapes, Colors and Symbolism in Birmingham's Outdoor Artwork
Modern and traditional works enhance downtown with an endless 'art fair.'
Sculptures, statues and wall hangings add to downtown's sophisticated appeal. We've got art of all sorts—from vivid abstracts, to nature-inspired forms, to realistic images. Materials include bronze, stone, steel, aluminum and glass. Some are here to stay, others loaned by their creators.
Bold, provocative installations enliven parks, plazas and parking structures because of eight volunteers on a Public Arts Board, chaired by Barbara Heller. This year they'll consider placement of a white steel sculpture entered in the 2010 Grand Rapids Art Prize competition, which creator Christopher Yockey—a Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate—has offered to lend the city.
"Public art is a vital part of the city. Art creates a richly diverse and meaningful experience while enhancing the visual character of our community," says Birmingham's municipal website, which has walking tour maps here of permanent displays and temporary ones in a CityScapes program supported by the Cultural Council of Birmingham Bloomfield and private donors. Here are the 10 pieces of art that I appreciate most.
1. "Journey Home": The soaring, spiraling glass and steel sculpture alongside Birmingham City Hall's east entrance changes colors and brightness right along with the sky. Even vehicles rolling along Pierce interact with the reflective, angled surfaces of Dennis Oppenheim's kinetic work, installed on the lawn in July 2008. Appraised at $85,000, it's the highest-valued piece in the CityScapes partnership.
2. "Freedom of the Human Spirit": Our best-known display, installed permanently as Shain Park's focal point, is the iconic 24-foot-tall sculpture by globally recognized artist Marshall Fredericks. After creating this reach-for-the-sky statue for the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, the artist (who lived on Lake Park Drive and raised five children here) was commissioned to make a second casting for Birmingham's 50th anniversary in 1983.
3. "X-Man Man Ray": An eye-catching, 2.5-ton piece alongside the Pierce Street Parking Structure at Brown Street, with a vivid steel X holding back a black sphere, was created in 1998 by Cranbrook master's degree graduate Terry Lee Dill of Pontiac. The name is a tribute to surrealist American artist Man Ray. It was placed in 2006 through CityScapes and now belongs to Birmingham, thanks to a 2010 purchase and donation by Mark Berman of Bloomfield Hills, a collector who owns another sculpture by Dill.
4. Painted tiger: In addition to museum-quality fine art, whimsical folk art also brightens the city's core – including one of the more than six dozen artist-painted "Tiger Town" models scattered around Birmingham in spring 2007 before being auctioned to benefit the Detroit Tigers Foundation and local Children's Charities Coalition. The one shown above, donated by its buyer, is at Merrill and Pierce near the parking structure entrance. Another is on a home's front porch at Lincoln and Southfield.
5. "Torso": A serene, graceful glass and stone sculpture by Herb Babcock of Oxford, Mich., sits alongside a traffic island sidewalk at Oakland and North Old Woodward, where it was installed in 2007 as part of CityScapes. Babcock, who earned a master's degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1973, chairs the glass department at Detroit's College for Creative Studies.
6. "Heart of the Tetrahedron": Next time you hit a red light alongside Martha Baldwin Park at West Maple and Southfield, look at Mark di Suvero's bright red sculpture instead of your phone. This 2005 work, made of three painted and welded steel girders, is by a New York abstract expressionist artist represented locally by the Hill Gallery, at 407 W. Brown. "A tetrahedron, like a triangle, is a very solid, non-deformable geometrical object," di Suvero told Sculpture magazine the year he created this one.
7. "The Counselor": A municipal garage's bland bricks gain a swirling splash of color from Lansing native Christopher Yockey, 34, another master of fine arts alumnus of Cranbrook. His eye-popping wall sculpture on Parking Deck No. 5 at North Old Woodward perks up even an overcast mid-winter day if you take a moment to look.
8. "Poetry and Truth": Oversize, flat human figures in the landscaped walkway between Merrill and the Pierce Street Parking Structure were created in 2006 by John Sauvé of Brighton, a 1988 master's graduate of Michigan State University and CityScapes curator.
9. '"Wind Rapids": At the same Merrill plaza is a three-legged metal abstract loaned since 2006 by artist Russell Thayer of Franklin, who describes it as "a plow of horizontal aluminum waves."
10. "Baboon and Baby Chimpanzee": Four years after Marshall Fredericks died at age 90 in 1998, his family donated two life-size bronze baboons on granite bases for the Children's Garden on The Community House's Merrill Street side. The other is playing a mandolin (hey, why not?) Their gentle, pensive faces coax out my inner child and will connect with yours, guaranteed.
Picking 10 highlights was tough and there are just as many runners-up worth checking out. So look left, right and up as you drive, jog or walk around town.