“When the mayor rides it, he shouldn’t be disappointed that it doesn’t fly,” joked Carroll Leggett. “The Wright brothers didn’t fly at first either.”
Waiting for Mayor Allen Joines and other political and arts dignitaries to show up at the presentation of a new public art piece at Winston Square in downtown Winston-Salem on Tuesday morning, Leggett, a local freelance publicist, fired off another bon mot.
“I feel like we’re in the eye of the biddy,” he said. Then he explained to Brian Kubecki, a local architect, that biddy is another word for chick, adding that one of the highlights of his rural North Carolina childhood was the arrival of mail-order chicks that would grow into chickens and eventually become dinner.
The oversized baby bird, constructed from a metal pipes painted in primary colors and assembled in a geometric configuration, by artist Aaron Gibbons features large googly eyes encased with clear, hard plastic bowls extending over watermelon-sized black pupils that create a mirror effect. The sculpture’s frame encloses a red antique tractor seat. A wheel facing the seat is attached to a series of pulleys to manipulate the bird’s beak and wings. The piece retains the working title Gibbons gave it when he started drafting plans: “Interactive Bird.”
Gibbons received the commission for “Interactive Bird” when his design was selected by a jury in the “Unruly” design competition sponsored by the Winston-Salem section of the American Institute of Architects, or AIA.
Kubecki and Brad Rucker, both AIA Winston-Salem members, conceived the competition in late 2012. Kubecki said the project was an outgrowth of architects’ love of design competitions, coupled with AIA Winston-Salem’s sponsorship that year of a design study by Virginia Tech for the emerging Theater District, which includes Winston Square, the Milton Rhodes Arts Center, the Sawtooth School and the Stevens Center.
“We thought, This stuff is really good, but we want to bring it into the physical realm and make it tangible,” Kubecki said.
Taking as their inspiration a similar program at MoMA PS1 in New York City, AIA Winston-Salem issued a request for proposals in 2015. The Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County agreed to fund the competition.
The project takes a kind of tactical approach to animating public space, and Kubecki said “Interactive Bird” is intentionally a temporary installation. The idea is that the piece will stay up for three months although Kubecki said it could actually be as long as a year. It will be up to Gibbons to decide what happens to the piece after that. AIA Winston-Salem plans to sponsor another “Unruly” design competition in about 18 months, although Kubecki said he doesn’t want to nail down a precise a timeframe. The idea is that a series of public art pieces will occupy the same space at Winston Square over time.
“We want to promote emerging talent and existing talent in the city,” Kubecki said. “The idea is to get it off paper and into the world.”
The bird might not be ready for flight, either conceptually or mechanically, considering that its wings are relatively small in proportion to its fulsome trunk.
“That just goes back to that it’s a baby bird,” Gibbons explained. “That’s the way I designed it. It’s possible that it’s just now getting its wings to fly. There is a scale restraint, too.”
And yet the piece, which is located at a convergence of pathways leading to an arena flanked by a system of fountains and artificial boulders in the park, is already doing its job of firing imaginations, if Leggett’s musings are any indication.
“One of the overall themes I try to bring back is that child-like mindset,” said Gibbons, who splits his time as an art teacher between two schools in Mount Airy. “If we can get back to that as adults we’ve succeeded. Childlike creativity is so raw. I really stress that every child is an artist. Whether they choose to pursue that as an adult is really not the point.”
Gibbons said he doesn’t know why he’s attracted to geometric art, although he certainly has the ability to fashion delicate curves through the forging technique at his home metal shop in King, a town outside Winston-Salem. He also works with wood, although this piece strictly uses metal.
The result is an accessible piece of art that might engage a small child’s imagination more profoundly than a faithful representation of a bird, or help a teenager or young adult grasp engineering concepts by thinking about lengths and angles.
“I guess I’d have to go back to that minimalistic thing of breaking it down to its basic elements,” Gibbons said. “It’s just natural to me.”