Sculptures in Utah abound, but some are more well-loved than others
By John Rasmuson
Who among the tourist hordes visiting Juliet Capulet’s house in Italy has not sidled up to Juliet’s bronze statue and copped a feel of her boob? Not very many. To pass up the opportunity for a fast feel is to forgo the good fortune that Romeo’s girlfriend can bestow, especially to the lovelorn. Her statue was groped so many times, her right breast cracked a few years ago.
The Juliet statue is not the only one said to convey good luck. At West Point, an 1869 statue of Gen. John Sedgwick offers help to cadets who find themselves in academic trouble. Those who seek a Sedgwick boost must don their dress uniform, strap on their sword and make their way to the statue the night before finals. If they spin the rowels of the general’s spurs at midnight, they will do well on the next day’s exams.
Good luck in the stock market may accrue to those who rub the testicles of “The Charging Bull” statue in Manhattan’s Financial District. So many hopefuls have done so, the bull’s balls are burnished as though King Midas had touched them.
It’s less clear what a touch of Abraham Lincoln’s nose offers Utahns. But the evidence is obvious. In the clean, well-lighted space on the fourth floor of the Capitol, the nose on the bust of Lincoln shines brighter than Juliet’s bronze breast. A prominent “Please Do Not Touch” sign has apparently not deterred many a furtive feel since 1929.
Who is fingering Lincoln’s nose? For what benefit?
The proximity of legislators’ offices is suggestive. It may be that Republican legislators are fondling Lincoln’s nose for help in sniffing out leftist intrigue in Salt Lake City’s polluted air. Or perhaps Democrats are secretly touching Lincoln’s bust in the hope that some of the 16th president’s forbearance will rub off.
If legislators are indeed stroking Honest Abe, it is possible they might be doing the same with George Washington. However, Avard Fairbanks’ bust of Washington at Westminster College puts an end to speculation. There is no sign of shine on the lips that could not tell a lie.
Statuary is as much a part of Utah culture as is a well-tended lawn. From the inscrutable (Gilgal Garden) to the religious (Temple Square) to the playful (Library Square), the city’s statues freeze-frame time. Many memorialize such notables as Martha Hughes Cannon in their prime or such events as Brigham Young’s pronouncement at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, “This is the place.”
“This is the place” is an evocative clause. Besides the association with Brigham Young, it is invoked often on the sites of historic events around the state. Some of these memorials are more expressive than others. The bronze trout hugging the ground along 2100 South in Sugar House mark habitat forever lost. Beneath them, the stream from Parleys Canyon, where Cutthroat trout once thrived, flows toward the Jordan River in an asphalt-shrouded pipe.
A statue can also become problematical—especially in an era of political correctness—as sculptor Jerry Anderson can attest. In two instances, his statues became a lightning rod as a storm of controversy kicked up over southwestern Utah like a monsoon thunderstorm.
One was in St. George, five years before the church shooting in Charlestown, S.C., caused memorials of the Confederacy to be scrutinized. Dixie State College took down an Anderson statue called “Rebels.”
The $35,000 statue of two Confederate soldiers with a Confederate flag, commissioned in the 1980s, was deemed a liability in Dixie State’s campaign to gain university status. (The school had retired its Confederate soldier mascot, Rodney the Rebel, in 2005, replacing him with Brooks the Bison a few years later.)
“It was a kick in the pants,” said Anderson. “One hundred percent of people felt bad about ‘Rebels’ going down.” He ultimately bought the statue back from the college. It is now displayed near Anderson’s gallery in Leeds, Utah.
He also bought back his statue of John D. Lee in 2004. It had been commissioned by the Washington City Council to honor one of the town’s pioneer founders. However, to descendants of those killed by Mormon militiamen in Mountain Meadows, 30 miles north of St. George, in 1857, the statue of Lee was offensive. Lee was tried, convicted and executed for his role in that slaughter of 120 people in a wagon train en route to California from Arkansas.
In a 2004 Deseret News story, a spokesman for the Washington City Historical Society said, “We never intended to honor him for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but John D. Lee did a lot of great things for Washington City. He was a good man. He built the cotton mill and taught people how to get the water here to grow the cotton.”
A good man or a mass murderer? Such a dichotomy is not uncommon these days. Some people feel that statues memorializing the Confederacy are part of the South’s cultural legacy; others view them as symbols of treason and white supremacy. Regardless, most have been on display in public places for decades—as was Anderson’s “Rebels.”
“I don’t like it, but things change,” reflected Anderson, who is still working at 84. What was acceptable yesterday may not measure up to today’s standards. The change is determined more by ideology than artistry. What doesn’t change is how people engage with art. Some use their eyes and ears; others rely on their hands. Anderson doesn’t care if people touch his statues. However, Jim Glenn, manager of the Utah Public Art Program, has a nuanced view of touch as a function of human nature. To touch is to engage art, he said, even when touching is discouraged by curators like himself.
Utah’s inventory of public art is short on bare-breasted women. The bronze bulls at This Is the Place Monument have been castrated. A “don’t touch” sign guards Lincoln in the Capitol. It seems that Utahns’ best bet for a touch of good luck is to comb their lush lawns until they find a four-leaf clover.