By Kristen Moore with contributions from Pinchy Mahonty Moore
Charlotte’s iconic and beloved Firebird sculpture celebrates five years in the Queen City this November.
The Birth of the Firebird
While the Firebird, or L’Oiseau de feu sur l’arche (The Large Bird of Fire on an Arch) as it is officially named, has become deeply rooted in Charlotte’s southern soil, the glimmering mosaic sculpture’s journey actually began in Europe more than 20 years ago.
French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) created the Firebird in 1991. Elements from the Firebird can also be seen in two of de Saint Phalle’s 1983 sculptures – the Sun God, which was commissioned by the University of California at San Diego and the bird-like sculpture in the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris – both still on display today. One of the most similar sculptures to the Firebird is de Saint Phalle’s Sun Sculpture in The Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy.
An experimental artist and world traveler, de Saint Phalle created imaginative works that reflected her exploration of cultures from around the world. The Firebird is closely associated with the phoenix in Greek mythology. Representing rebirth and renewal, the sacred bird was believed to have lived from 500 to 1,000 years before becoming engulfed in a bright fire and reborn from the ashes.
Charlotte’s Firebird features a golden sun on its chest and back with flames around its head illustrating de Saint Phalle’s use of mythology in the design. Standing 17-feet-5-inches tall at 1,433 pounds, the sculpture is hand decorated with more than 7,500 pieces of mirrored and colored glass that shimmer under the sun and catch the reflections of the people and places nearby – experiencing a rebirth and telling a new story in each location it has journeyed to.
The Firebird Takes Flight
Since its creation in 1991, the Firebird has flown from city to city on display in various exhibits until Charlotte resident and Switzerland native Andreas Bechtler, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s
benefactor and namesake, purchased the sculpture after viewing it at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2006. Bechtler had been searching for an outdoor sculpture that would welcome visitors to the museum, and when he saw the Firebird in Atlanta he knew it was the right piece to serve as the counterpart to the geometric lines of the museum’s architecture. There was also another connection, too – the museum was designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta with whom de Saint Phalle collaborated on the sculpture/architecture project, Noah’s Ark, in Jerusalem. Botta also created the entrance gate to de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden.
“When I saw the Firebird, I knew it was outstanding. I knew it would be great for the museum,” Bechtler said during the unveiling of the Firebird in Charlotte. “The Firebird is joyful, uplifting and engaging. It makes you feel that life is good.”
Thousands in Paris; Bonn, Germany; Geneva; Basel, Switzerland; Chicago and Atlanta viewed the Firebird before it permanently landed in Charlotte. Prior to coming to its new home, Bechtler stored the Firebird in a warehouse in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. It was delivered to the museum in two pieces in October 2009 and was unveiled to the public on Nov. 3, 2009.
At first glance, most people think the sculpture is a bird with long legs or what appears to be bell-bottom-like pants (this perception along with the disco-ball effect the mirrored tiles project has resulted in the sculpture earning the nickname Disco Chicken), but with a closer look, spectators can see that the bird is sitting atop a large arch. A crane was used to set the two pieces of the Firebird, the bird and the arch, on steel footprints on the plaza at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
Becoming a Charlottean
Now settled into its new home on South Tryon Street, in a location that used to house a tire service store, the Firebird sculpture has quickly become popular with visitors and locals in Charlotte. It is a jewel in the crown of public art in the Queen City and an icon in Uptown Charlotte. Its stature and radiance create an experience for people walking by, drawing them in to interact. That’s the way de Saint Phalle designed it; she wanted people to interact with her art.
President and CEO of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art John Boyer lit up when asked to share his thoughts on the sculpture. “I have always sensed its magnetic quality. My most pleasurable moments I have had here in this museum are watching people interact with the Firebird. Whether I’m sitting outside eating lunch at one of our cafe tables or I’m standing upstairs looking down from the third floor, it's a pleasure to see all kinds of folks soaking it in.”
Its shimmering and playful design represents and reflects the city’s growth and creative energy. Through its ornate, intricate layers of glass and steel, the light that reflects off the sculpture’s glass mosaic radiates warmth that has become part of its southern charm. Just like Charlotte, the Firebird represents southern hospitality and cosmopolitan character, making it the perfect piece to welcome people to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the city of Charlotte.
Chaney Peavler, who works at the One Wells Fargo Center and passes the Firebird when walking to her car after work each day, says that she always sees people at the Firebird. "I’ve walked by the Firebird hundreds of times,” Peavler said. “I pass countless tourists taking pictures with it. They are so happy when I offer to take their picture so everyone in the group can be in it.”
The Firebird is becoming to Charlotte what Cloud Gate, or the bean as many call it, is to Chicago. Taking a picture with it has become a must-do activity when visiting the city. “South Tryon Street at Levine Center of Arts is now the end point for a lot of the city’s parades like the MLK Day Parade,” Boyer explained. “Towards the end of each parade, there are thousands of people surrounding the Firebird. It has given us so much pleasure to see that engagement and celebratory kind of relationship that people have forged with it.”
Like many in the Queen City, the Firebird is a Charlotte transplant, but it’s warm, inviting and glimmering spirit shows that it’s a Charlottean at heart. And the way that it’s become a symbol for the city shows that it has become a fixture in the hearts of Charlotteans, too.