Statuesque

Sculpture's unexpected return

After all these years, we're suddenly a city that erects statues. There's the cool Rachmaninoff statue in the World's Fair Park, the modernist statues at Agee Park, the new outdoor statue at the art museum. Others here and there in various parts of town.

I don't know that there was any coordinated effort to start landscaping with sculpture, but I'm glad to see it. A city that takes the time to build statues is probably doing all right.

Now, with little warning, there's a big statue in Krutch Park. It's a striking chunk of bronze, bigger than life, a kindly, distinguished looking bald-headed man holding a good-sized baby squirming in his lap. The man's holding what looks like a hypodermic needle. People who walk around downtown are getting used to seeing it, but you still see folks at Sundown doing a double take. Women see it and say, Awww . Yesterday I saw a man driving west on Clinch squeal to a stop, just to gawk. Kids may cringe. Stand too close, and it can, like all lifelike statues, unnerve an adult.

It's the Rotary Club's statue dedicated to local men who have raised money to fight polio worldwide. Though the crippling and often fatal disease has been rare here for half a century, and half forgotten by parents whose children will never be threatened by it, polio remains a menace elsewhere in the world, and those who have improved the situation through inoculation programs deserve as much recognition as any mortal is allowed. I wasn't familiar with Bill Sergeant's contributions to this effort until I saw this statue. As far as I know, he deserves statuary honors as much

Sure, it may seem a little odd that he's sitting on top of the earth, in fact sitting right on one of the very coldest parts of the earth. The tails of his coat flare southward to the equator.

That part just looks a little odd. Maybe if you needed a place to inoculate a kid, you'd pull up a handy planet to sit on, too. But if you did, would you then fastidiously pull out the tails of your coat down over the globe to neatly cover the Northern Hemisphere?

Between you and me, it looks best from the front; from the back, it looks almost biological, like some sort of organism undergoing a painful ordeal, perhaps laying a giant egg.

I know some who would rather have seen a tree here; I'm just as happy to have this statue. But I suspect the city will someday find some excuse to plant a big bush behind it.

The sculptor is one Lajos Biro, a Hungarian Rotarian who I assume is a different Lajos Biro from the screenwriter of Hollywood's golden age. I looked him up on Google, and this seems to be his most famous piece of work in the world.

It's a problem solved, in any case. A few years ago, someone once asked me if I could think of someone to build a statue of to place in Krutch Park. I thought and thought. There are quite a few statue-worthy folks in Knoxville's history, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand why we don't erect many statues.

Nearly every Knoxvillian hero I could think of would have caused a large demographic swath of Knoxvillians' blood to boil. This one's racist, that one's a womanizer, that one wanted to raise taxes. In a city that's always been politically divided, to be loved is also to be hated. Parson Brownlow, Cas Walker, John Sevier, William Blount all had their dark sides, and as many enemies as friends.

Until now, we've tended to prefer that our statue subjects be generic ones. About three blocks from Krutch Park is another bronze of a man holding a squirming baby, a fireman. In Knoxville, we don't build statues of women much, but we do like statues of men holding babies. That statue originally appeared in old Emory Park, on the north end of downtown.

Perhaps most southern cities and towns I've visited, and many northern ones, have a statue of a Civil War soldier on guard somewhere about the downtown. Even Knoxville, Iowa does. Knoxville, Tennessee never risked it. One detail would have been a dilemma for the sculptor, of course, and that's whether to carve a US or a CS on the belt buckle. In the end it wouldn't really have mattered, for practical purposes. Either acronym would have resulted in nocturnal indignities.

Partisan organizations eventually did erect one of each, a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier—but wisely placed them in memorial parks in rarely visited fringes of town, high on pedestals and safely out of reach of hammer and paint bucket.

The only martial statue in the CBID is of an inoffensive soldier of the Spanish-American War on the old courthouse lawn. His rifle lowered to his hips, he looks as if he's watching the battle from a distance, hoping they work things out. As maybe they already had. It was one of the briefest of wars.

There's a generic World War I doughboy in front of the old Knoxville High building on Fifth Avenue, on the north side. It was perhaps the end of a flurry of statue-building during Knoxville's urban boom years, ca. 1880-1925. The doughboy would be the last anthropomorphic statue to be installed downtown for more than 60 years. It was a period of economic and cultural lull in Knoxville, and that might have had something to do with it, but it wasn't just Knoxville; there was a good while there that building statues of people was considered, by definition, jejune. Corny, even. The few statues that showed up tended to be abstracts, like the odd concrete Vietnam memorial now in the City County Building's lawn.

But then about 15 years ago, Rowboat Man bobbed up at the corner of Gay and Church, cheerfully and eternally sinking in the concrete. It may have had ironic intent, but it seems to have broken the esthetic dam. It was followed a few years later, by the interesting Treaty of the Holston statue down on Volunteer Landing, and the huge bronze of Alex Haley on the east side, and then Rachmaninoff.

Now they're showing up again, popping up like May flowers. We may get sick of them after a while, but for now it seems a healthy sign.

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