There is a new piece of public art a couple of blocks from my house, in the playground across the street from the Peace Dale Library. It is a fourteen foot tall, vaguely bunny shaped, abstract sculpture by an artist named Peter Diepenbrock. It was recently installed as part of the celebration of South Kingstown’s tricentennial. This sculpture has a lot of curb appeal. The bunny, whose official name is “Ostara”, cost $150,000 and it shows. It is a lovely light gold color and sparkles in the sunlight. The first time I drove by it, I immediately pulled over and got out to take a closer look. In general, I’m a guy who thinks any public art is better than no public art. However, after spending about 15 minutes walking around the statue, scratching my head, and muttering, I was having trouble maintaining that stance.
Ostara has a great pair of bunny ears; ears that any bunny would be proud of! Eat your heart out, Bugs! That’s it. The rest of the statue is a series of awkward bulges and random protrusions. None of it is coherent. For the most part, the sculpture appears to be woven from shiny metal strips. However, there are two appendages that are abruptly cut off and capped with solid metal as if some kind of bunny amputation had taken place.
It is true that Ostara’s glitzy surface initially grabbed my attention. However, after taking a closer look I clearly found this piece of sculpture visually off putting. Additionally, I was thinking, “I’m stuck with this. This thing is going to outlive me and I’m going to see it most days for the rest of my life.” That thought made me feel grumpy, like only an old guy with arthritic knees and an enlarged prostate can feel grumpy. (I’m 78, if you want to know.) I mention these reactions just to acknowledge that I was not inclined to cut the bunny any slack or give it the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, maybe it was predictable that as I began to look into Ostara as a symbol of South Kingstown’s 300th birthday, I would find even more to object to, for example, the theme of the project and the economics of it.
In an article in the Narragansett Times published when Ostara was selected, Ken Burke, chair of the art selection subcommittee, said, “Given all the themes of the Town of South Kingstown, from the preceding indigenous populations to the mill and industrial era, to our war and other civic heroes, to our natural seaside and inland environments, we felt that this sculpture finds balance among all these attributes and helps us celebrate our history while being aspirational for future generations of South Kingstown residents.” When I read this, I thought, “Huh? How could a lopsided bunny named after a Pagan solar holiday, celebrated on the vernal equinox, honoring the awakening of the earth, balance all of the themes of South Kingston? Wouldn’t a lobster or quahog have been more appropriate?”
Money money money money
Mark, a yen, a buck or a pound
That clinking, clanking, clunking sound
Is all that makes the world go ’round
It makes the world go ‘round!
(John Kander / Fred Ebb)
Of course there is an economic aspect to all art projects. However, in the case of Ostara money is front and center in a way that is discomforting. Ah, lucre, filthy lucre! First off, it’s not coincidental that it is a golden bunny. Around the base of the sculpture is text that spells out the theme: “A symbol of prosperity and new beginnings for current and future generations” (emphasis added). The $150,000 price tag for Ostara was covered by a grant from The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, a quasi-public organization whose mission is “…to create the conditions for businesses in all sectors to thrive and to improve the quality of life for our citizens by promoting the state’s long-term economic health and prosperity” (there is that word again). There is nothing wrong with prosperity, but is it the first value you’d want to focus on in a public artwork? Call me an old hippie, but I’d go for inclusion, diversity, equity, friendship, community, kindness, togetherness, etc.
Rhode Island Commerce works mainly with businesses. When they do fund art projects, it is based on the solid idea that the arts drive economic growth. However, they got the cart in front of the horse. If you fund the arts for the purpose of making art, economic growth will indeed follow. If you fund the arts for the purpose of economic growth you’ll get… Ostara. There is a detail in Ostara that backs up this point. Usually in works of art the attribution to the artist happens in a label separate from the piece – in the case of sculpture, maybe a small plaque attached to the base. Peter Diepenbrock, the creator of this piece, has put his name smack in the middle of the work itself, on one of the protuberances that pokes out at the viewer. It is startling to see it there. It doesn’t make a bit of sense as art. It only makes sense as branding and marketing; economic motivation trumping art making.
I’m not an unreasonable guy. I’m willing to look for a way to pass my remaining days harmoniously while living two blocks from Ostara. Here is my starting position in negotiations for reaching public art detente in Peace Dale. Now that this statue is in place, hand it over to the community. Arrange for various groups to reimagine it quarterly for the equinoxes and solstices; modify it in any temporary way that wouldn’t damage the original form. In the fall knitting groups could yarn bomb it to keep it warm and toasty as the temperatures drop, for winter a couple of hardware stores and electricians could wire it up until it glowed and flashed like the spaceship from Close Encounters, springtime could find it decked out in flowers, baskets filled with Easter eggs and stuffed bunnies galore, and in summer Ostara could become Lifeguard Bunny by adding sunglasses, sand, a surfboard, and a coating of coconut scented suntan lotion… oh, and don’t forget the lobsters and quahogs!