By Michael J. Solender
The Queen City’s rich history, unique character and communal culture are represented in various public artworks that offer Charlotte a sense of place.
With multilayered textures, colors and bearings acting as metaphors for the diverse tapestry of life here in Charlotte, the city’s works of public art embody our community. Some speak to the legacy of the city’s forbearers, others to the promise of our future, and others to the wonder and splendor of artistic creation.
Here, we explore seven of the city’s most significant public art forms, each of which captures an important facet of Charlotte.
Location: Independence Square (Intersection of Trade and Tryon streets)
Flanking each corner of the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets—known as Independence Square—Charlotte’s historic trading crossroads and the highest elevation point in the city, are four 5,000-pound bronze sculptures towering atop 25-foot-high granite pedestals. They represent four facets of the city and are named Commerce, Industry, Transportation and Future.
Installed in 1995 and privately funded by the Queen’s Table, an anonymous, philanthropic local arts group, the quintessentially Charlotte sculptures are the product of internationally renowned artist Raymond J. Kaskey.
Kaskey performed meticulous research in creating the Sculptures at Independence Square, employing the Roman “genius loci” tradition, which represents the prevailing character of a place. Inspired by the historical, cultural and social context found in Charlotte’s deep history, three of the four figures represent important elements of the city’s past as well as its economic development.
Commerce portrays a 19th-century prospector panning for gold—a nod to Charlotte’s early mining days (the area was the site of the nation’s first gold rush). A whimsical homage to the city’s banking roots, Kaskey depicts former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan in a secondary figure.
Industry features a female mill worker from Charlotte’s byone textile factory days. Children poised at her knees depict child laborers toiling well before codes restricted their employment.
Transportation illustrates an African-American railroad worker. It’s been proclaimed Kaskey’s favorite of the four statues because of its well-defined figure and the subtleties in its context. A closer look reveals that the man’s hands are clasped in such a way to resemble the specific U-shaped train method in use at the time.
Each of these giants looks toward the final pillar, Future, which reflects Charlotte’s promise of tomorrow. With an infant raised high in her arms, the figure of a woman looking up at the sky speaks to the hope and possibility awaiting generations to come.
To fully enjoy these works, passersby are well served to linger at each, noting the rich detail in the height of the midday sun. See if you can spot the hornet’s nest that rests at the base of Future—a veritable tip of the hat to the rebellious Revolutionary War nickname Charlotte was given by British General Charles Cornwallis.
2. The Firebird
Location: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art Plaza
Immediately upon its unveiling in 2009, Niki de Saint Phalle’s giant, whimsical, mirror-covered sculpture, The Firebird, was unofficially exalted with Charlotte landmark status.
Ever-immortalized in countless Charlotte selfies, the gleaming “Disco Chicken,” as it’s been colloquially dubbed, is a photographer’s dream. Perched on the plaza at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, The Firebird (its actual artist’s title is "Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur l’Arche" or "Large Firebird on an Arch") draws in visitors. Day or night, the bird shines from any angle against the terra cotta-colored museum.
The artist was a friend of the Bechtler family, whose contemporary collection of mid-century European and American art fills the jewel box of a museum. More than 7,500 mirrored glass mosaic tiles enrobe The Firebird sculpture, specifically purchased by museum patron Andreas Bechtler to anchor the entrance.
Months prior to the installation, a life-size fiberglass model was moved to the museum plaza to help determine The Firebird’s ultimate location. Afterward, the model found a reprieve from the waste bin, taking residence in an open field at Bechtler’s Mountain Island Lake home, where it stands guard today.
3. La Cascade
Location: The Carillon Building (West Trade Street)
Another classic figurehead in Charlotte’s public art collection, La Cascade has ties to both the Bechtler family and The Firebird’s artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
An enormous kinetic mashup created by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, La Cascade soars more than 40 feet high inside the lobby of Charlotte’s Carillon Building on West Trade Street. The fascinating and quirky assemblage of Charlotte artifacts, found objects, flashing lights, colored metal and rescued junk holds court in the lobby, surrounded by a rectangular fountain. It’s powered into motion by a series of levers, chains, cables, pulleys, and no less than 15 motors that whir and wheeze, adding to the work’s unceasingly imaginative solo ballet.
Tinguely, who was de Saint Phalle’s husband, was commissioned by the Bechtler family to create the signature piece for Hester AG, a Bechtler-owned company and developer of the building. Completed in 1991, La Cascade was the last piece Tinguely finished before his death that year.
Many of the discarded objects incorporated in the work hold special significance for Charlotte. The concrete lion’s head at the fountain level was recovered from the demolished Hotel Charlotte, which formerly occupied the site of the Carillon Tower. And Tinguely’s use of the tractor seat in the work is seen as a tribute to the Queen City’s agricultural roots.
Viewers can’t help but notice Tinguely’s obsession with all things racing. La Cascade features a detached cherry-red Ferrari hood precariously bobbing up and down.
The piece is a longtime Charlotte favorite, and now it can be enjoyed at an additional city locale. Local model builder Gene Hopkins was commissioned by Andreas Bechtler to construct a fully operational ¼-scale replica model of Tinguely’s sculpture. Visitors of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art can view the 2017 installation in the museum’s lobby.
Location: Intersection of Josh Birmingham and Billy Graham parkways
One of Charlotte’s most recent entrants onto the public art stage is Ascendus. Created by Oregon-based artist Ed Carpenter, it rests precariously at a tilted angle near Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s entrance, just off Josh Birmingham Parkway and its intersection with Billy Graham Parkway.
Viewed as a Charlotte stunner since its installation in 2012, the 60-foot-high structure is made of steel alloy and laminated glass. Particularly captivating after dark, the illuminated high-tech form is bathed in blue, red, green and white by 54 LED flood lights.
Ascendus resembles a huge wing or giant alien spacecraft and appears ready to take flight at the slightest provocation, which adds to its mysterious allure. Charlotte’s position as a top international airport hub and significant transportation crossroads makes the area an important locale for inspiring public art.
The work represents a collaboration between the Arts & Science Council and Charlotte Douglas International Airport and is said by the artist to “suggest the excitement of flight and evocations of wings, feathers and, especially, ascent.”
Location: Intersection of Romany and Dilworth roads
Timeline by Robert Winkler holds a special place in the history of public art projects in Charlotte.
Conceived, commissioned, organized and funded entirely by the Dilworth Community Association, the project rallied neighbors to create a lasting and memorable statement with this remarkable public art piece.
The inspiration and raw materials for the project were both unearthed in 2009 when construction on East Boulevard revealed buried trolley tracks that had once carried suburbanites from Dilworth to Center City.
A short four years later, Asheville-based Winkler installed the swirling helix using the rails, which he fused together. They align the evocative work toward Uptown from Dilworth in a nod to the past direction of the trolley line.
Painted as a brilliant sunflower yellow, the Timeline rises from the ground and appears to sway from its Latta Park resting place near the intersection of Romany and Dilworth roads, giving the observer a sense of motion, regardless of the viewing angle.
Go ahead and let the kids climb atop it; this is a piece of art that’s meant to be touched.
Location: Whitehall Corporate Center
One particular resident of South Charlotte’s Whitehall Corporate Center doesn’t go home at the end of the day with the rest of his officemates. In fact, he never leaves his post here, standing guard 24/7 through all kinds of weather.
Of course that’s what we’ve come to expect from one of Charlotte’s most recognizable and curiously cool works of public art, David Cerny’s Metalmorphosis.
The first public installation in America by Czech Republic-born Cerny, Metalmorphosis is a massive 31-foot-high, 14-ton, multisegmented head and fountain made of stainless steel. The 40-plus head segments rotate independently at 360 degrees and seemingly at will to create surreal, abstract images that engage the viewer from every angle.
Situated in a reflective pool, the work glimmers and is hauntingly lit at sunset, making for brilliant photographs.
Quirky, contemporary and not without controversy, this piece of public art shows Charlotte to be unafraid of challenging the status quo.
Location: Charlotte Douglas International Airport
It has long been thought that the Queen City’s namesake Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, Germany, (wife of Great Britain’s King George III) was a diminutive monarch; some records state she was less than 5 feet tall.
When he created a statue of Queen Charlotte’s likening, sculptor Raymond J. Kaskey (also responsible for the Sculptures at Independence Square here in the city) wanted to be sure that, despite her petite frame, no one missed her greeting upon arrival at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. So he made her larger than life—much larger. The 20-foot-high Queen reigned atop a tall pedestal, just outside the arrival doors at the airport from the time of her installation in 1990 to early 2013, when she was relocated due to airport construction and expansion. Currently, she sits not far from her original home, waiting patiently in between the east and west daily decks in an airy courtyard.
Her unusual posture, cast in bronze, finds her crouched over as if blowing in the wind—perhaps by airplanes, some artists have said. The crown she holds high above her head represents the Queen City, and her presence at Charlotte’s prominent gateway signifies the city’s commitment to the arts.
This article ran in the March 2017 issue of Charlotte Happenings.