Building ‘The Life Wall’
Public art takes shape at the new Durango library

Faces of luminaries wait at the ready at the Durango Public Library for the “Life Wall,” Durango’s new piece of public art./Photo by David Halterman.

by Jules Masterjohn

The year was 1984 when I made my first trip to New York City. I was overwhelmed as I walked the city, excited by its scale and energy. Wide-eyed, I encountered the city’s art, from traditional sculptural works of fountains, monuments and statues honoring civic and political leaders to the modern works that grace the city’s streets and parks. Wandering around the Soho area, I stumbled upon the monumental Cubist sculpture by Picasso, “The Bust of Sylvette.” Strolling through Central Park, I was treated to the sensual abstract sculpture of Henry Moore, and further uptown in the park, watched children scramble upon life-sized bronze characters from well-known children’s books. These donated sculptures were gifts to the city’s children.

Durango, too, is rapidly becoming a welcome home for public art. Our community has joined the list of Colorado locales that have established governmental commissions dedicated to placing art in public venues. The Public Art Commission (PAC) was formed in 2004 and “vested with the responsibility of advising the City Council” on all aspects of planning, installing operations and maintaining public art. This is a big embrace for artists and community, indicating that our civic leaders understand that a community’s attractiveness and its quality of life are enhanced by outward expressions of creativity.

It’s an equally large undertaking for the five volunteer commissioners who serve on the PAC for three-year terms. Selected by Durango City councilors, the PAC has created the Public Art Master Plan and the Animas River Master Plan, which include developing an “Art on Loan” program as well as a “One Percent for Art” ordinance.

With more than three years under its belt, the PAC has been busy, having adopted criteria for reviewing artist proposals as well as identifying future sites for display. In early 2007, the PAC installed a metal sculpture created by local artist Bryan Saren to commemorate Durango’s 125th Anniversary. Selected through a competitive process, Saren’s sculpture greets visitors at the Second Street entrance to City Hall.

Most recently, PAC members Carol Martin and Jennifer Neff have been working diligently – and excitedly – on the installation of artworks at the new Durango Public Library. For Martin and Neff, the task at hand is to finalize the locations of 40 bronze components of a sculpture called “The Life Wall.” the piece includes castings of heads, as well as a few miscellaneous yet significant body parts, of notable public figures.

Gifted to the city’s public art collection by an anonymous donor, “The Life Wall” was created by artists Willa Shalit and Dean Ericson to “celebrate human knowledge and the diversity of man.” The recognizable features of entertainers Robin Williams, Clint Eastwood, Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopi Goldberg are part of the display as well as the portraits of all the current and past presidents that were living from1980-90.

The portraits of activist Rosa Parks, Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and authors N. Scott Momaday and Amy Tan show that the “The Life Wall” represents the flow of life across cultures. The casts of a newborn’s hands and feet and the head of the sculptor’s elderly grandmother indicate an honoring of life throughout all its stages. The sculpture also includes a casting of ballerina Natalia Makarova’s leg on point, the fist of former boxer Muhammad Ali, and the large hand of Julius Erving (aka “Dr. J”) palming a basketball.

A conceptual and interactive piece, “The Life Wall” castings will be mounted on brushed aluminum or titanium backings and attached to the undulating metal fence surrounding the library’s patio. Martin is working to ensure that a vine component will be included, signifying the thread that ties the piece together and provides conceptual and literal continuity. Also intended to be “seen” by the visually impaired, the vine assists the non-sighted in moving from one cast form to another, with accompanying signage in Braille identifying each personage along the way.

A unique and unusual piece of art, the sculpture draws viewers to it and engages them through its life-like qualities and its representation of humanity. The sculpture’s donor tells an amusing story of watching a middle-aged woman approach the sculpture when it was on display in Florida. The woman reached out and slapped the casting of former president Richard Nixon’s face, commenting that she “felt better” afterward.

Portions of “The Life Wall” have been displayed in major museums across the United States as well as at the United Nations in New York. This sculpture will not be alone at the library: the PAC will be putting out a “Call to Artists” for a storyteller’s chair in the near future. The Allan Houser bronze sculpture, “My Children,” on display in front of the current library, will be moved to the new library as well.

According to Martin, commission chairwoman, the Library Board loved that “The Life Wall” would be sited at the buy library and agreed to dedicate 1 percent of the library’s capital budget (building costs only) to purchase, install and maintain art for the new building. Martin said she is hopeful that such an idea will catch on. “If 1 percent of the library’s capital building project were budgeted toward public art, we could show the community how successfully a ‘One Percent for the Arts’ program can work,” she said. •

More information about the Public Arts Commission can be found at www.



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