Dancing Arches: What's the point?

Just days ago, I oversaw installation of a new public artwork in a small grassy area at the recently renovated Rodney Park. The sculpture is the result of more than a year’s worth of discussion, planning, fundraising, design, and fabrication by the City of Lancaster and its community members, and me, the artist. As you can see from the photo above, the sculpture consists of seventeen steel arches, each with a unique shape and color, each at a unique angle.

At the end of the day the sculpture was installed, a young girl (also seen in the photo) and her friend, who is watching her from the sidewalk, were walking through the park, perhaps on their way home from school.  It had been scarcely two hours since the final arch was set when this unnamed girl, ice cream cone in hand, made a split-second decision to abandon the sidewalk and skip gleefully through the arches, her arms flailing wildly in the air as she danced.

What you can’t see in the photo is was a small group of citizens that had gathered on the sidewalk to express their concerns to a City official. Some wondered what the sculpture was for, how many of their tax dollars it cost and what it was supposed to be, while others were certain that it would be vandalized or destroyed based on other crimes that had taken place here.  I tried to get the group’s attention to point out the girl, but they were deep in discussion and couldn’t hear me. 

Since then I have thought a lot about that day.  The people on the sidewalk seemed to be both haunted by the past and worried about an uncertain future. Their concerns, although understandable and reasonable, seemed to blind them to what was happening just ten feet away.  This girl, unencumbered by anxieties, practicalities, and the need for answers, was completely engaged in the present.  It’s something I aspire to, but rarely achieve. 

I will admit that I was much more inspired by the girl than the concerned citizens, but as the artist, I thought I would the take this opportunity to answer some “frequently asked questions” regarding the sculpture before I relate another interesting story.

What does the sculpture do? Is it a water fountain? Does it have purpose?

The sculpture doesn’t do anything. It is neither a water fountain, cistern, or play structure. It isn’t an educational tool or piece of outdoor furniture.  In fact, the artwork was not designed to serve any practical, utilitarian purpose at all, although it gives Rodney Park an identifiable landmark unique in all of Lancaster, and for that matter, the world. The sculpture is also illuminated nightly, which makes it a beacon.

Why is it called “Dancing Arches”?  Is it some kind of gate?

When I visited Lancaster over a year ago to see Rodney Park and get a feel for the neighborhood and its history, as well as its place in Lancaster, I was struck by the arches I saw everywhere.  Just a few blocks away on Coral Street, as on many other Lancaster streets, narrow arched passages connect the street to the garden between row houses. At Central Market downtown, the brick façade is animated with arches.  Perhaps most famously, the Conestoga wagon, with its distinctive leaning arch frames, was invented here.  Even the meandering Conestoga River, seen from above, creates series of arches.

Arches are universal, built by different cultures throughout history and occurring in the natural environment.  It was apparent to me, even in my brief visits over the last year, that this neighborhood is made up of many cultures and that an artwork could celebrate that diversity through a form that was visually accessible to many.   Dancing Arches frames certain views that continually shift as you move in and around it.  Looking northwest through the sculpture, a family-owned Latin American corner store is prominently featured, but turn slightly to the west, and the arches frame a grouping of doors and windows in a brick building.  The sculpture also aligns with Penn Square downtown, which is apparent by the W.W. Griest Building.  Looking southeast through the arches, the senior center and splash pool-young and old- are brought into a single view.

How much did this cost? Who paid for it? Was it created by a local artist? Does it benefit the local economy?

Dancing Arches cost $50,000. Over $30,000 of that money was donated by individuals and institutions through Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding website, while the balance was paid for by the City of Lancaster. Although benefitting Lancaster’s economic well-being was not its primary intention, the project owes its existence to the expertise of several local businesses.  The sculpture’s steel components were fabricated, finished, and installed by GSM Industrial. Excavation and concrete work were completed by Kline Concrete, located just blocks from the park. Electrical work was completed by Stephen Daniels, a local electrician. Matthew Lester, a local photographer, will document the sculpture.   The sculpture was designed by me, an artist from Minneapolis, MN.  I was selected by an art selection committee who evaluated proposals both local and national.

A few days after Dancing Arches was completed, I visited the park again one afternoon.  A thunderstorm had just passed through, and the sky was clearing.  A middle aged man approached me and struck up a conversation.  Not knowing that I was in any way involved with the sculpture, he told me about his beloved 13-year-old dog.  For years, he had walked her down to Rodney Park daily.  He had recently taken her to the emergency room to be treated for acute hip pain.  She did not survive.  The man, out of work and grieving, received a condolence card from the veterinary hospital several days later.  Inside the card was a poem entitled The Rainbow Bridge.   The poem, he told me, concerns a meadow where pets and owners are eventually reunited in a grassy meadow after death.   A day after receiving this card, this man opened his morning newspaper to see pictures of the newly installed sculpture.  He came to the park, he said, because he felt that this must be the bridge in the poem.  To him, the sculpture will always mark the loss of a beloved companion and a symbol of hope.

Obviously, I could never have imagined that Dancing Arches might take on that meaning to anyone.  In fact, there is no particular meaning that I hoped people might glean out of the sculpture.  The ways that each of us engage with art (or not) depend in large measure on what we bring to it, how open we are to it, and how closely we look at it. 

To the girl with the ice cream cone, it was simple:  Run through them, now! 

To the grieving gentleman, the sculpture provided a gateway to memories.

I’m certain that of the people who stop to look at the sculpture, some will see nothing.  Others will see problems.  Some will be reminded of something else.  Yet others will be inspired.

And I guess that’s the point.

By Randy Walker