by Tim Gilmore, 2/5/2021
The 30 foot tall red steel sculpture was the first piece of public art in the city in half a century and Jacksonville seemed hostile. Not since Christmas 1924, when Charles Adrian Pillars’s sculpture Life, a slim Donatelloesque winged figure standing triumphant atop a world swirling in Blakean chaos, was unveiled in Riverside’s Memorial Park, had a major piece of public art debuted in the city.
Now, at the turn of 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, Atlanta sculptor Carl Andree’s Jacksonville Trisect stood whimsical before architect Ted Pappas’s Hogan’s Creek Tower. A dark veil fell back from the sculpture and 500 balloons of various colors floated from beneath the veil into the sky. The Jacksonville Housing Authority commissioned the 15 story, 209 unit tower in 1974, just south of the mostly replaced historic wealthy black neighborhood of Sugar Hill. Pappas’s Brutalist design echoed architecture like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation built in 1952 in Marseille. Andree’s trisect was clearly organic, anatomical even, and newspapers from Palm Beach to Jacksonville to Atlanta asked whether it depicted an ostrich, an anteater, an elephant or a weathervane.
The elderly residents of the tower seemed to like it, though reportedly it frightened one older woman. On January 23rd, The Palm Beach Post ran the headline, “‘Trisect’ Problem for City,” while The Atlanta Constitution, on March 7th, went with the imaginative “‘Thing’ for Elderly.” The Atlanta paper referred to unnamed critics who said, “It wasn’t suited for the elderly people who had to live with it.” The Florida Times-Union dubbed it “The Jacksonville Whatever.”
Months later, Andree (now Carl Andree Davidt), 31 years old, with a Master in Fine Arts in Sculpture from Georgia State, still hadn’t been paid. Acting City Attorney Fred Simpson said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had authorized paying the artist, but the city committee that gave him “the go ahead” had “no legal standing, no authority to purchase” Trisect. General Counsel Harry Shorstein, who had since resigned, approved the bill “as his last official act,” but “did so reluctantly.”
In January, the Associated Press reported “a wide range of opinion on whether it’s a work of art or a four-ton monstrosity,” and Jacksonville Housing Director John Van Ness said “the money was allocated” and somebody would have to pay it, “no matter what anyone thinks of the project.”
Thus was Jacksonville’s response to its first work of public art in half a century. Was this Jacksonville the one that ran the film industry out of town in the 1920s, the city whose indigenous artists and writers hurried to move away, the working-class city with an inferiority complex, not yet realizing one of its major problems was a brain drain? On the other hand, Pillars’s Life sculpture was situated as the centerpiece of Memorial Park in one of the city’s loveliest (and toniest) neighborhoods, while Andree’s Trisect fronted a public housing project to benefit an impoverished part of town few people from outside the neighborhood would ever visit.
Carl Andree, then working on a three ton metal sculpture for Atlanta’s Central Park, said someone had suggested he come down to Jacksonville, put Trisect on a leash and take it back home to Atlanta. He thought of his sculptures as “big toys, things that are fun to be around and to which you can react visually.” If it stung him, as it must have, that critics, ever more vocal than supporters, seemed so rigidly unimaginative, vitriolically so, he did not say.
Jacksonville’s building of large concentrated public housing structures—after demolishing whole black neighborhoods with their diversity of uses, from homes to churches to musical venues to restaurants to theaters to banks to physicians’ and attorneys’ offices—fits the systemically racist urban “reconstruction” or “renewal” that reshaped every sizable city in mid-20th century America. The public artists and architects who often found their work in the 1970s’ economy and sociosphere restricted to such projects were innovative, in spite of a cultural Mercury Retrograde, and sometimes visionary.
Trisect would come to mean a lot to Omar Shabazz, who grew up in an artistic family nearby, “across the bridge.” Trisect mesmerized him. When he was nine and 10 years old, he thought it looked like a giant wind sculpture, but also a dinosaur. “I was so fascinated. It seemed random, in this weird area without any context. I’d ride my bike to it and just stand in awe before it.”
And the elderly residents of the Hogan’s Creek Tower seemed far more open and gracious to Trisect than the typical Jacksonville critic. Frances Hines, 71 years old, ex-president of the Towers Tenant Association, loved her view of Trisect from her second floor apartment. “I love the colors,” she said. “You know, I’m old and I like red.” She said she liked “the weathervane part around the eyes,” which “tells us which way the wind’s blowing. That’s alright. We get it.” Tower resident Bill Harlow said, “The vivid red is beautiful. I love it. It brings people together around here to see what the thing is.”
For “The thing” might be some Fancy of the Imagination Personified, a pterodactyl-woodpecker, a space alien in love with the earth. Might be a hybrid condor-ostrich or some angelic sloth embarrassed of its own majesty. “To me,” Harlow said, “it looks like an anteater.” (Thus was it, so it remains, and as such still, it interrogates its city, as it will.) Then Bill Harlow, straightening his shoulders, nodding his chin, setting straight the record, clarified, adding emphasis: “a pretty anteater.” That’s it.