Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Omaha Monuments

First National Bank is the tallest building not only in Omaha, but also the tallest between Chicago and Denver. In addition, FNB is the largest privately owned bank in the U.S., with over $17 billion in assets.

They spent some part of that money on two parks and sculpture gardens in downtown Omaha. Now, generally, I'm all for sculpture gardens, but I guess I'm more a fan of gardens that show a range of artists, materials and approaches.

What FNB commissioned is a monument to the white settlement of Nebraska and the West. It's full of chunks of rock and larger-than-life-size bronze settlers, working their way through the ruggedified landscape.

Bronze pioneer wagon with human figures nearby
The first group of works is called Pioneer Courage, the second the Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness. In effect, the Conestoga wagons, horses, oxen and people of Pioneer Courage are shown driving the previous inhabitants (the buffalo and geese of the Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness) ahead of them through the streets of Omaha, until they reach a second small park space and then finally the "winter garden" attached to the FNB skyscraper. (Photos of each sculpture can be seen here.)

Pioneer girl running beside the wagon
When I started examining the sculptures up close, the first thing I noticed was that the people all looked way too happy. Imagine you've been walking 20 miles a day for weeks. It's hot and humid, with gnats and mosquitoes. You may or may not be sick, you may or may not have had enough to eat. Would you be running and laughing?

Pioneer boy's face close up, open mouthed, as if he's gazing at a beautiful scene
This boy's face looks a bit neutral in the photo, but in person it struck me as happier. Even the adults in the family looked like they were cast from a stock photo archive. A bit farther up the train of people, there were two girls who were carrying baskets of flowers.

Now, I can imagine that kids would sometimes do that, of course, but choosing to show girls who've been picking wild flowers creates an image of almost idyllic conditions that have nothing to do with the reality we all can imagine from the Oregon Trail game.

Bronze cow struggling against its lead
This cow sculpture better expresses a sense of what it would have been like, in my opinion. Nearby, there's a wagon that has one of its wheels stuck in a rut, with a male figure trying to push it out -- that evoked a sense of reality as well.

Buffalo partially submerged in stone building corner with calf just behind
The pioneer wagon train extends across one city block. Just ahead of them, across the street, are these two buffalo -- an adult (hard to see in my photo) busting through the corner of the building, followed by its calf.

Buffalo calf cavorting with its mother in a field of grass
At the next block, the buffalo get a little bit more space to roam.

Male buffalo bronze with geese taking flight in the background
And they run beneath flocks of geese, which spread from a fountain to each of the corners at the nearby intersection.

Stainless steel geese overhead inside a curtain wall atrium
Finally, the geese transform from the bronze that was used for the outdoor versions to stainless steel when they reach the final point of their migration, inside the FNB Winter Garden (a glassed-in atrium with an internal balcony that's designed to look like a wooden boat).

On the whole, the various parts of the two sculpture gardens left me feeling unsettled. The idealized people, moving through an almost-empty landscape... what was missing? Could it be... Indians?

You know, the people who lived in this "empty" place before the pioneers arrived to show their courage?

Partway through Pioneer Courage there are plaques with statements from the artists, mounted on the rock faces. One of them reads:

Three and one-half centuries after Columbus's voyage to America, pioneers began to discover the vastness and unlock the secrets of the great American West.

The opening and settling of the American West is a record of heroism and human sacrifice that speaks to the heart of the world. Unequaled anywhere as to its complexity and scale, Pioneer Courage memorializes the countless thousands who forged their way westward to define the great American dream.

As an artist, and as a descendant of pioneer ancestors, this project represents the culmination of a personal lifelong devotion to depicting the history and spirit of the American West through sculpture. It is my sincere hope that whatever I have done will serve as an inspiration to people and children everywhere to work hard, make the best of life, and cherish the sacred blessings and responsibilities passed down to them from their forebears.

Edward J. Fraughton
This statement, from its opening reference to Columbus to the use of the term "opening" the West to its embarrassingly unconscious use of the term "human sacrifice," is overtly political and full of American exceptionalism. America is the greatest country in history, it's easy to infer, just as the sculpture is unequaled in scale and complexity. If everyone would just work hard, like these idealized pioneers (who died by the countless thousands, by the way), everything would be perfect in our society.

I have no idea what it cost to commission and build these two sculpture parks. The three artists involved worked on it for at least 10 years, plus the labor and materials for landscaping the two outdoor spaces and fabricating the sculptures themselves. That has to be a serious financial investment.

Meanwhile, on the north side of Omaha, there's another monument that could use just a bit of that money.

Small white house with red trim
North Omaha is the birth place of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little). This isn't his house -- that was torn down decades ago -- but I thought I'd include a photo of one that's nearby to give a flavor of what the area is like.

The Malcolm X Foundation has been working since the early 1970s to create a memorial to his birth in Omaha. The most visible symbol of their work is this plaque:

Photo of the Malcolm X birthplace plaque with preteen boy reading it
(This photo is from the Malcolm X Foundation website.)

They've worked diligently to raise money and start work on the multi-acre site, with plans for an amphitheater and educational facilities. They hold cultural events and work with youth in the community.

But when I visited, all I could see was a small parking lot in the middle of a field, surrounded by a chain link fence, and this message:

Chain link fence with parking lot visible through it, and sign giving the Malcolm X Foundation web address
Seems like the people of Omaha (and, hey, corporations are people, too!) could help fund this bit of real Omaha history, just as they funded the bronze and stone commemoration of Manifest Destiny downtown.

1 comment:

Patricia Cumbie said...

Excellent post. I like your observations.