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Defaced Waterfront Sculptures Face Uncertain Future

State of the Arts


Published June 19, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.


Graffiti has its defenders, but can anyone — other than the taggers — justify what’s happened to a set of granite sculptures beside the Moran Plant?

Some of the originally white pieces have been defaced with green-streaked monster skulls painted on a blood-red background. Others are crudely sprayed with initials, obscure hieroglyphics or goth slogans such as “Every day is Halloween.” Satanism stalks the Burlington waterfront.

“It’s really a shame and a disgrace,” comments Peter Owens, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office. He adds that the lesson to be learned from this vandalism, as well as from the gigantic graffiti gibberish stenciled onto the Moran Plant itself, is that “we’ve got to get people down there to use that facility in a positive way.”

Kate Pond, one of 11 sculptors who created the installation in 1990, says its abuse amounts to a “tragedy.” Pond participated in what was then billed as an International Sculpture Symposium. Organized by Burlington artist Paul Aschenbach (1921-1994), the collaborative undertaking did have an international character, Pond recalls, with sculptors traveling to Burlington from Japan, Norway, Scotland, Germany, Canada and the country then known as Czechoslovakia.

“It was very exciting and energizing to be working with people from all over the world,” says Pond, who now sculpts in a studio in Williston. The artists agreed to carve the two dozen granite blocks individually and to arrange them in a pattern that mirrored the Adirondacks and also mimicked the Green Mountains and their foothills. The pieces gradually rise in size, with the smallest closest to the lake and the largest farthest from it.

The slabs were hauled to Burlington by rail from Rock of Ages, the Barre quarrier that donated them to the symposium.

Pond says the makers of the public art project intended it to be a permanent monument signifying resistance to commercial development on the waterfront. But that wasn’t the city’s intention, notes Burlington City Arts director Doreen Kraft, who helped orchestrate the initiative 23 years ago. She recalls that then-mayor Peter Clavelle gave permission for the sculptures to be placed on city-owned land with the understanding that “they were never supposed to be permanent.”

Inertia prevailed, however — literally, because the half-ton-and-heavier monoliths were difficult and costly to move.

Like Pond and Owens, Kraft laments the disfigurement of the sculpture project. She says she feels “great sadness we haven’t done a better job of protecting our inventory of public art.” Leaving works in “an abandoned site is the worst thing you can do with public art,” Kraft adds.

So now what?

Something has to be done with the untitled array soon, because the city expects to break ground in September on Waterfront Access North. The $8 million infrastructure development involves remediation of the arsenic-laced ground on which the sculptures sit. Utility lines filigreed above the site will be buried, and the city will excavate the ground for a new storm-water system.

The coolest idea for disposing of the sculptures is undoubtedly Kraft’s proposal to submerge the slabs in Lake Champlain, where they would form Vermont’s first underwater sculpture park. But city officials have nixed that plan, warning that the permits needed from layers of government agencies would take years to obtain — if they could be obtained at all.

The likeliest outcome, Owens suggest, is relocation of the sculptures to an area a couple of hundred yards to the north, formerly occupied by a set of oil tanks. Such a move won’t make much sense, however, unless the sculptures are cleaned. And, given their current condition, that would be “enormously expensive,” Kraft says, noting that BCA has raised funds to have the pieces cleaned twice previously.

Transporting them even a relatively short distance would be costly as well, Kraft adds.

Owens says members of the local arts community will be discussing the sculptures’ fate in the coming weeks. It’s possible, he adds, that they could eventually be incorporated into the design of a repurposed Moran Plant.

Pond urges that the artwork henceforth be treated with the respect it has been denied for most of its history. The pieces should be cleaned by sandblasting and then coated with a graffiti-resistant material, she suggests. And, wherever they get placed, “great care” must be taken to align them in the formation the sculptors devised, Pond says.

She notes that on the evenings of the vernal and autumnal equinox, the setting sun shoots its rays exactly along a pathway at the center of the installation. That Stonehenge effect draws Druids to the waterfront every March and September, although the monster skulls and satanist symbols surely harsh their