Why This Matters: Knowing key details of and motivations behind our public artwork helps us better understand how they connect to the city and the county.
By Bernie Petit
Not all of the perceptions we have about well-known public artworks in Charlotte are based on facts.
Sometimes, misconceptions color our understanding of artworks. It’s easy to understand why – the best public art elicits fascination and emotion. The problem is fascination and emotion don’t always care about the truth.
But we do, which is why we’ve decided to fact-check the common perceptions people have about some of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s most recognizable public artworks.
Created by Niki de Saint Phalle and located in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art at Levine Center for the Arts
Perception: “The Firebird” is an anthropomorphic figure with its legs firmly affixed to the ground.
Fact-checker says: False. What is commonly mistaken as “legs” is actually an archway – the bird is perched atop. It makes sense when you consider its full name, “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur l’Arche” (“The Firebird” or “The Large Bird of Fire on an Arch”). Look closely and you’ll notice the bird’s talons clutching the mirrored arch.
Created by Andrew Leicester and located at the Spectrum Center (formerly Time Warner Cable Arena)
Perception: It’s got something to do with textiles.
Fact-checker says: True. The suite of four 50-foot columns combines seating and lighting with the theme of giant bobbins, loaded with yarn in primary colors, ready to feed imaginary flying shuttles.
The Ben Long Fresco
Located in the lobby of the Bank of America Corporate Center
Perception: The pyramid and robed figure in one of the three panels of Long’s fresco references sorcery, some sinister force or a secret society.
Fact-checker says: False. The panels depict the themes of making/building, chaos/creativity, and planning/knowledge.
Created by Thomas Sayre and located along the LYNX Blue Line Light Rail
Perception: The discs comprising the artwork were placed along the light rail line with no connection to its location or the city.
Fact-checker says: False. The discs actually reference plow wheels caked in red Carolina clay. They are strategically placed to create a line of sight to uptown, connecting the city’s agricultural roots to its urban center.
Created by Thomas Sayre and located on the corner of Randolph and Wendover roads in Charlotte
Perception: It’s better known as “The Onion Rings.”
Fact-checker says: Probably true. The privately funded public artwork is commonly referred to by the somewhat derisive nickname. However, it takes its actual name from the Latin name for southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), a native tree symbolic of gracious Southern living.
“Sculptures on the Square”
Created by Raymond Kaskey and located at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets
Perception: There are several secrets hidden in the statues.
Fact-checker says: True. The head of former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan is below the gold prospector in “Commerce.” A self-portrait of the artist is beneath the millworker in “Industry.” “Transportation” includes the number “1401,” commemorating a steam locomotive named “Charlotte” that pulled trains through the city.
Created by Pete Beeman and located at the Shuffletown Sportsplex
Perception: It’s waving a fond farewell to elements that helped shape Charlotte’s Shuffletown area, around the Bellhaven Boulevard and Mount Holly-Huntersville Road crossing.
Fact-checker says: Half true. The artwork is waving hello to the neighborhood’s future, too. The mechanical steel hand can also be seen as catching or throwing a ball, speaking to the intended use of its location.