The Shapes of Things That Are
A city that believes in the arts, Wilmington boasts a stunning collection of public sculptures. Here’s a tour.
Consider for a moment the importance of a city’s collective pride. Without pride a city is just a shell. It may contain the most awe-inspiring architecture, the most widely respected cuisine or the most enviable shopping districts on the planet. But without pride, it’s all just an empty promise; a body without soul; an unrequited love. In short, a city’s pride is everything.
It’s probably safe to assume Wilmington sculptor Rick Rothrock understands this, as he is the creator of a monument designed to honor one of the city’s most treasured inspirations, world-renowned jazz musician Clifford Brown. Rothrock’s “Twin Obelisks for Brownie” stand with 14-feet of pride inside the Clifford Brown Garden at 16th and Clifford Brown Walk. The sculpture was officially dedicated at the 2008 DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival as a sign of the city’s perpetual respect and admiration for one of jazz’s most celebrated figures. This year the city revealed a new addition to the presentation.
In June, officials unveiled phase II of the public sculpture, a series of meditation benches that encircle the obelisk and bear the names of Brown’s colleagues, family members and mentors.
“It’s such a nice monument to Clifford Brown, who is probably the most world-renowned musical artist from the city of Wilmington,” says Mayor James Baker. “And this was important because I think public art should recognize the citizens who are great in your community in one way or the other.”
“Brown was a giant in the jazz world, so these benches are another way to contemplate the life and work of one of Wilmington’s most inspirational,” says Rich Neumann, assistant communications director for the mayor and a local history enthusiast. “The mayor wanted a piece that would pay tribute to Brown, and this is certainly it.”
Though the Clifford Brown monument is the most recent addition to Wilmington’s vibrant public art landscape, it is by no means the only sculpture. Wilmington is as rich with sculpture as it is with history and character. Whether you’re an avant-garde post-Modernist or diehard classicist, the city of has gads of variety to offer. And in ways both large and small, every one of the works that follows is a testament to the tangible pride contained in this vibrant city.
Perhaps no other sculpture in Wilmington is as unusual (or inspires as much heady discussion) as Kenneth Davis’ three marble spheres, called Kinetic Sculptures. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but the work—at Hercules Plaza on 13th Street—is also a marvel of modern engineering. In a square pool of water stand three concrete blocks of various heights. Balanced atop each is an enormous marble sphere, with the largest, three feet in diameter, weighing in at 3 tons. Water flows continually from the base of the fountain, and each of the spheres spins on the motion of the impossibly thin layer of water. For those of you doing the math at home, that’s three tons of marble lifted and spun by a layer of water less than a 16th of an inch thick. Eyes, commence popping.
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Father and Son
Of a very different, but nonetheless equally impressive, aesthetic is “Father and Son" inside Spencer Plaza at 800 French St. This bronze sculpture is the creation of local legend Charles Parks. The work portrays an African-American man holding a small child asleep in his arm and resting on his leg. Dedicated in 1973, “Father and Son” honors the spirit of Spencer Plaza, which sits on the former site of a church founded by former slave Peter Spencer, whose remains are buried in the grounds of the plaza.
Other commemorative sculptures abound in Wilmington, and one of the city’s most well known is the Caesar Rodney equestrian statue in Rodney Square. Commemorating Rodney’s historic horseback ride from Dover to Philadelphia on July 3, 1776 to cast his vote for independence, the Caesar Rodney sculpture is perhaps even more stunning than the casual observer typically realizes.
Created by James Edward Kelly and dedicated on July 4, 1923, this bronze-brass-metal statue portrays Rodney on horseback. What is so remarkable about the work is that it shows Rodney’s horse in full gallop, with its two front legs in the air. The considerable weight of the statue rests on the animal’s hind legs. The effect was a notable accomplishment for Kelly, a world-famous artist in his time.
From the Revolution to the Vietnam War, Wilmington has several sculptures that pay homage to some of this country’s most formative and devastating conflicts. One of its most celebrated is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (sometimes called Crozier Monument) at 14th and Broom Street in Trolley Square, which was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1871 to veterans of the American Civil War. Atop a 45-foot granite obelisk sits a bronze eagle with its wings spread, perched upon a bronze ball. Union symbols are carved into the top of the column. And here’s a bit of trivia sure to impress at your next dinner party: The eagle was molded from a Civil War cannon that was melted for the sculpture.
Also paying tribute to the same era is the Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett plaque at 1999 Water St. in Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. This piece is a dedication to the two most fervent contributors to the Underground Railroad. The memorial contains two sculptures—one of Tubman and the other of Garrett—mounted on a dedication plaque. The piece, dedicated in 1976, reminds visitors of Wilmington’s crucial role in helping escaped slaves make the journey north to Philadelphia and freedom.
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Honoring yet another dark but ultimately inspiring period of human history is Elbert Weinberg’s “Holocaust,” a bronze and cement sculpture inside Freedom Plaza between City Hall and the state building. It was dedicated in 1979 in commemoration of the victims and survivors of the Jewish holocaust in the 1940s. Borrowing a page from abstract art, the work is composed of three concrete blocks arranged in a triangular pattern. Wedged between the stones, which bear inscriptions that name several of Germany’s most brutal concentration camps, are evocative bronze figures of a woman, a man and a mother holding a child aloft, a display of suffering and the promise of hope.
“The holocaust memorial is important because it reminds people of the cruelty people can inflict on one another over insignificant issues,” Baker says. “It also reminds us of the terribleness of what happens when governments run amok and spin out of control. You have to have that kind of memorial. It’s a remembrance of what we can do when we’re at our most horrible.”
Wilmington’s Vietnam War Memorial inside Brandywine Park at Washington Street is a work by Charles Parks that pays tribute to the veterans of that conflict. The sculpture shows an African-American soldier carrying a wounded soldier in his arms.
Not all sculpture in Wilmington is commemorative. Some of it exists purely for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment and enlightenment, such as the works at the New Castle County Courthouse, where artist Brower Hatcher’s “Beacon” was unveiled in 2007. Soaring 51 feet into the air, the towering, lighted sculpture is an intricate weave of strands of color that was commissioned by the courthouse’s art committee several years ago. The idea was to create and display a visual representation of the legal system, its evolution and its resilience over time.
The result is a breathtaking series of concentric shells and multicolored geometric structures of stainless steel that wrap around a tower of glass and steel. The bands contain quotations from landmarks in judicial history, including the book of “Exodus,” the Code of Hammurabi and the legal writings of Confucius. “‘Beacon’ is the concept of law realized as a structure,” Hatcher said at the time of its dedication. “The idea of laws is monolithic, transparent and historic. It has a historic source.”
A Garden Full of Work
Finally, no tour of Wilmington’s sculpture landscape would be complete without a mention of the Copeland Sculpture Garden at the Delaware Art Museum, where visitors can walk around well-manicured surroundings while enjoying a prized collection of public art. Favorites include “Crying Giant,” a 13-foot-tall bronze statue; “Three Rectangles Horizontal Jointed Gyratory III,” by George Rickey, which moves with the slightest breeze and causes many to pause and marvel at its seemingly impossible structural integrity; and a sound sculpture by local artist Joe Moss, which is designed to manipulate the voices of those nearby. In total, nine sculptures are displayed in the garden.
But just as all cities are forever growing, so are its works of public art. Baker would like to see this segment of Wilmington’s cultural flair expand.
“What I’d like to see us do is some art work that makes it even more interesting for people who live here or visit,” says Baker. “For a city to become a world-class city, public art is crucial.”