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If Pigs Could Fly 

Learning about public art from Cincinnati

In Cincinnati, Ohio, October 4 is "Andrew Leicester Day." To Mayor Pat McCrory, and citizens who've been following the controversy about Charlotte's public art stirred up by our city's mayor, English-born and educated Leicester (pronounced LES-ter) is well-known; he's the creator of the much-debated artwork for the new Charlotte arena. Cincinnati honored the artist this year with an official proclamation from the mayor to commemorate the phenomenal success of Leicester's public art piece "Cincinnati Gateway," better known as "The Flying Pigs." Designed in 1988, this complex work, created in association with Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle Architects of Minneapolis, comprises a 12 ft. high by 750 ft. long earthen mound running parallel to the Ohio River in the reclaimed Sawyer Point Waterfront Park. A watercourse runs along the top of the mound, and other waterworks flank the entrance to the park, shaped like a canal lock. Numerous brick, ceramic, steel, and bronze artifacts referencing elements of Cincinnati's history are integrated into the work, and in particular, the city's prominence as a riverboat hub, along with its fame as a pork-packing center are honored by Leicester in a dramatic composition of four tall steamboat smokestacks at the entrance gate. Each stack is topped by a bronze statue of a standing pig with wings, their front feet raised high in supplication.

For a time during the 19th century, Cincinnati was the largest pork processor in the world and gained the nickname "Porkopolis." Today's detergent giant, Procter and Gamble, became rich by making soap and candles from the pork fat left in the slaughterhouses bordering the canal that served the factories. The blood and offal from the unfortunate pigs were simply swept into the canal and flushed into the Ohio, turning the river red in the process. Leicester's "choir of four phantom angelic porkers" sing silent hymns of remembrance for all their brethren who died so that Cincinnati could prosper.

Prior to the completion of the project, a virulent public debate arose over the prominent inclusion of the pigs among the other historical references. The then-mayor of Cincinnati publicly castigated them as inappropriate for his vision of a modern metropolis. The mayor's contentious comments ignited a media blitz that lasted several months, ending in a raucous town hall meeting where a full-size hog was let loose among the council members as well as several pink-ribboned piglets. After a lengthy debate, the politicians endorsed the sculptures.

Despite the mayor's entrenched opposition, the media ballyhoo led to the adoption of the flying pigs by many groups as the unofficial symbol for Cincinnati. For the city's Bicentennial celebrations, the flying pigs appeared on souvenirs ranging from pewter collectibles and sterling silver lapel pigs to flying pig T-shirts and hats.

When Cincinnati launched its own marathon in 1999, organizers worried that few runners would be attracted to the event if it were called merely "The Cincinnati Marathon." Accordingly, the promoters called upon the mythic pigs for validation, and invented the "Flying Pig Marathon," complete with race literature featuring the winged porkers watching over a hoard of running piggies in the park below. Over 13,000 runners competed in the second race in 2000.

On a more serious note, Leicester's project won the Top Honor Award at the National Waterfront World Conference in Washington, DC, in 1999, and this year the artist received his proclamation from the current mayor recording his extraordinary contribution to Cincinnati's economy by transforming the city's image and creating a vibrant tourist destination at "Flying Pig Park."

Every year, Andrew Leicester is invited back to Cincinnati to preside over the annual "pig festival" as honorary master of ceremonies in recognition of all he and his art have done for that city. Yet Charlotte's mayor, Pat McCrory, is trying hard to keep this artist out of Charlotte. Why?

Leicester's work for the arena comprises a series of colorful sculptures in the form of abstracted spindles and spools inlaid into the brickwork around the building's perimeter, all based on the theme of Charlotte's textile history identified during the public forums on the arena's design. In addition there will be four large brick and stone columns at the entrance plaza that carry the textile bobbin theme forward with colorful rings encircling the column tops like thread. It's catchy, clever stuff, visually appealing and historically appropriate.

The CATS art-in-transit committee, which I co-chair, has asked Leicester also to develop artwork that will visually connect the arena entrance plaza to the adjacent light-rail station. As with all art-in-transit pieces, this work will be paid for mainly by federal dollars, and our committee follows detailed federal guidelines regarding how we operate and select artists. We want the mayor's input, but we ask that he take note of Cincinnati's experience, and not make the same mistakes that city made before it embraced its famous flying pigs.

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