I’ve lived here for 50 years and have seen many wonderful public sculptures installed, so it’s hard to choose favorites, but I enjoy art in all media. The best works are those that contain unexpected surprises — those worth examining more than once — such as these local treasures that I’ve picked out. Unfortunately, viewing two of these will be difficult due to the current renovations in Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park, but, no matter their status, they belong on this list:
1. Fountain of the Pioneers
Did anyone really like this 1940 concrete monstrosity created by Italian-American sculptor Alfonso Ianelli? Why does it head my list even though it was removed from Bronson Park last month because of its perceived symbolism of the subjugation of Native Americans? Because for 78 years, this sculpture dominated the very place where, not that long ago, indigenous people actually lived, which is often a forgotten fact. Passersby reacted to its crumbling Art Deco style and inauthentic Indian headdress and read into it as symbolism of subjugation. Now that this historic monument is gone, it will be too easy to dismiss unpleasant history that cannot be denied and should never be repeated.
2. When Justice and Mercy Prevail
The full title of this 1976 bronze and concrete installation is When Justice and Mercy Prevail, Children May Safely Play. It was created by local sculptor Kirk Newman. It has not actually functioned as a fountain since plumbing problems resulted in shutting off the water to it years ago, but when these eight wonderfully lifelike children are relocated to their new places on the south side of Bronson Park, as part of the park’s makeover that has begun this year, they may once again safely play.
1200 Academy Street
The late Kalamazoo College professor Marcia Wood designed this 12-foot-high welded stainless steel piece to contrast sensuous, undulating “feminine” forms with the severe rectilinear lines of the nearby Light Fine Arts Center. It was fabricated in Kalamazoo by David Volosky and Leon Hillman and installed in 1982. The scale of the brushed metallic shapes invites viewers to walk around and beneath them and peer through the openings.
4. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, 507 N. Rose St.
This larger-than-life bronze memorial was paid for mostly by individual donations and installed on the near-NorthSide of Kalamazoo in 1989. But sculptor Lisa Reinertson didn’t stop with a mere representation of the man — she embedded into his flowing robe episodes from the civil rights struggle and King’s distinguished career, such as a black slave laboring in a field, the Selma-to-Montgomery march, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a pensive King seated behind the bars of the Birmingham jail. To remember more than the heroic appearance of America’s civil rights icon, walk around his likeness and see these scenes and many more.
5. The Wheel of History
North Burdick Mall
Not everyone agreed with the Public Arts Commission’s 2002 selection of this site-specific, 12-foot-high concrete wheel created by Mark Lere. It has been criticized as “unstable,” but could the artist have intended to portray the delicate balance between history, politics and art? Follow the path of “footprints” it has left embedded in the sidewalk and you’ll see at once why this enormous disc belongs where it stands — adjacent to the Kalamazoo Public Museum.