DEAR VANCE: What happened to that much-abused modern sculpture that once stood by the entrance of Cossitt Library on Front Street? — C.T., Memphis.
DEAR C.T.: It’s just my personal opinion, of course, but I would apply the term “much-abused” to that entire building. City officials came up with all sorts of structural reasons for tearing down the red sandstone castle that housed the original Cossitt Library, but what they replaced it with in 1958 is — to me — one of this city’s greatest mismatches. Modern architecture has its place, but not when you’re trying — or in this case, apparently not even trying at all — to match it with the sturdy Romanesque wing that remained from the early library. The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide called the original building “a structure of great power and dignity.” Few people can say that about its replacement.
The one grace note in the new building was a shaded courtyard at the entrance, featuring a nice fountain adorned by a striking sculpture called The Truth Seekers. Crafted in 1961 by Ted Rust, who was then president of the Memphis Art Academy (later Memphis College of Art), the work featured a teacher holding a tablet — a clay table, not an iPad! — lecturing to three students holding books. Such a quaint image, really. Where are their laptops or Kindles?
When it was first installed, the sculpture was illuminated by colored floodlights, as you can see from this somewhat fuzzy Kodachrome slide from the Lauderdale Library. But it didn’t take long for the whole courtyard to develop a seedy look, with dead leaves clogging the pool and trash collecting in the bushes. Much worse, though, was the disrespect shown to Rust’s sculpture, when vandals somehow managed to lop the heads off the cast-stone figures.
Interviewed in 2001 for a cover story for this magazine, Ted expressed dismay over the condition of his Truth Seekers. He had already been called upon to repair the figures twice before, he said, and wasn’t going to fix them after they were mutilated a third time. “I’m not up to doing that,” said Ted. “There’s been so much damage done it would be like starting from scratch again.”
But he obviously changed his mind, because just three years later, Ted supervised the complete repair and recasting of the sculpture. Our city’s UrbanArt Commission, you see, had decided to move the sculptures to the gleaming new central library on Poplar. According to Carissa Hussong, then head of UrbanArt and now director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum, the restoration work was done at the Lugar Foundry, out in Eads. “I don’t remember how it came about,” she told me, “but I know [moving the sculpture] had been on our wish list for a long time.”
The restored sculpture now stands in a sunny gallery just off the main entrance to the Benjamin Hooks Central Library. They look very fine there, and it’s impossible to tell the figures had ever been damaged. Ted Rust passed away last year, at the age of 99, and before he died I’m glad he was able to see his work getting the respect and attention it — and he — deserved.
DEAR VANCE: Why is there a giant anchor by the entrance to Miss Lee’s School on Peabody? — J.E., Memphis.
DEAR J.E.: The short answer is that the anchor is a symbol of the elementary school and the church — Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal — that operates it, as you can see by the banners hanging around this midtown landmark, at the corner of Peabody and Belvedere.
But the long answer — provided by my pal Marci Woodmansee, the communications associate at Grace-St. Luke’s — is quite interesting, so I’ll share it with you.
Space prevents me from providing details about the long history of this fine establishment, but you may already know that two churches — Grace Episcopal and St. Luke’s Episcopal — merged in 1940, and a school opened on the site soon afterwards. The original symbol for the school was a winged ox, because that is the traditional symbol for St. Luke. If you don’t know why, then you obviously weren’t paying attention in Sunday School. Even so, this makes for a rather awkward image, especially when there’s a school involved. I mean, what are you going to call the sports teams — the Flying Oxen? So Marci tells me that sometime in the mid-1970s the headmaster, Lloyd Gesner, came up with a more graceful symbol — the anchor and chain, based on the notion that Christ “is the anchor of our soul.”
Plus, she said, the top of an anchor looks like a cross. According to Marci, the new symbol first made its appearance in the school’s 1978 yearbook and various other church publications. “Around 2001,” she says, “under the leadership of headmaster Tom Beazley, we started using ‘An Anchor for Life’ as our tag line.”
It was Beazley who then began a search for a real anchor to display on the church grounds. I certainly admire his perseverance. After all, you don’t just go to Target or Costco to find a big metal anchor. The headmaster had the good sense to contact the commanding officer of the Millington Naval Air Station, to ask — you know, just wondering — if they had any old anchors lying around. You can imagine the red tape involved in this, and Marci says the request went all the way to the Pentagon before the church actually received official permission to use an anchor from a decommissioned warship — though I’m not sure which one. Just send a big flatbed truck, the Navy said, and we’ll give you the anchor; that was the gist of it.
Now here was a problem. Marci tells me, “It wasn’t until that moment that Tom realized an actual ship anchor would be way too big for what we needed.” And heavy, too. “So he had to back-pedal and tell the very nice commander, ‘Oops, never mind.’”
Now, pay attention, because here’s where it gets confusing. Many folks at Grace-St. Luke’s believe that the anchors were designed by my pal Roy Tamboli, the local artist perhaps best known for his amazing Pangaean Disc sculpture that sits on the hill overlooking Walnut Grove at Poplar.
But they’re mistaken. “I’d like to get the design credit,” Roy tells me, “but all I did was get them cast in bronze.” So I’m not quite sure who came up with the actual design, but it doesn’t really matter does it? I mean, an anchor is an anchor. Roy says the anchors were forged from bronze tubing at a foundry in China and (literally) shipped here. The whole process took about five months, and four of the 150-pound anchors were actually made, though most people, it seems, only notice the one on Peabody. Three were securely bolted in place on the church grounds: outside the school office on Belvedere, in front of the Middle School on Lemaster, and next to Miss Lee’s School on Peabody.
The fourth wasn’t set into place until last year, guarding the Peabody Avenue entrance of the school’s stunning new multipurpose building, which is called — appropriately enough — the Anchor Center.
Marci says everyone is happy with the new symbol: “Calling the new building the Winged Ox Center just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?”
Nope, and putting a giant flying ox on display in a public place — well, that would have just been asking for trouble. Ted Rust could’ve told you all about that.
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