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When you put up a 38-foot tall stainless-steel sculpture of a man striding around downtown, it gets a lot of attention. Waddaya expect? It’s like some totem out of Godzilla vs. Megalon.
But the press surrounding the Traveling Man installation has concentrated on “Walking Tall” — which is only one of three metal figures going up alongside DART’s Green Line station in Deep Ellum. Art & Seek’s video report for Think (above) is the first to feature footage of all three, plus a flock of rather adorable, shiny steel birds, and a previously-unreported, internal element designed for safety. (Hint, check out DART’s cool, Walking-Tall-Attacks-Tokyo photo below.)
Traveling Man is the brainchild of Brad Oldham, metal sculptor and designer, and Brandon Oldenburg, a vice president of Reel FX animation studios who will soon move on to his own shop, Moonbot Studios in Shreveport. (In fact, his Moonbot logo suggests the same kind of cartoony, Astro Boy inspiration behind Traveling Man.)
The two submitted their design proposal as part of DART’s public art series, which has decorated stations with individual works, generally marking some notable or historic aspect of the station’s immediate vicinity. In this case, the idea was to commemorate Deep Ellum’s musical and industrial heritage and to make up for, in some small way, DART’s destruction of one of the area’s signature, concrete structures: the Good-Latimer Expressway tunnel, which was built in 1930 and became the original home of the neighborhood’s beloved murals. Thanks to Frank Campagna and the Deep Ellum Mural Project, the wall paintings have now gone happily “viral,” as it were, spreading to other buidlings in the area.
Oldenburg and Oldham’s proposal for a new “gateway” to the area got $1.3 million funding from DART and the project has been in the works for two years now — with completion set for Aug. 31. The Green Line from Pearl Street to MLK Blvd. won’t open, however, until mid-Sept.
With its gleaming-smooth, riveted-looking surfaces, Traveling Man is futuristic, while also evoking Deep Ellum’s manufacturing history (a former Ford plant was there and any number of auto-repair and motorcycle shops). The references to the area’s musical past and present are more explicit, with the sculpture “Waiting for a Train” finding our metal friend playing a guitar while reclining on the last-remaining chunk of the Good-Latimer tunnel. The metal trio’s heads also resemble a guitar’s headstock, complete with tuning pegs (the technical term that Oldenburg can’t remember in the video interview). And the names of the various statues recall famous song titles as well, notably “Traveling Man” (Ricky Nelson, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dolly Parton and even Mos Def — for starters), “Waiting for a Train” (Jimmie Rodgers), “Walking Tall” (Lyle Lovett) and “Awakening” (um, Switchfoot?).
Personally, I find the Traveling Man sculptures to be pop-art clever and cool (if a bit twee with the coy little smiles). I’m genetically allergic to cuteness, but Traveling Man is one of the extremely rare instances when Dallas has actually attempted large-scale, outdoor, public-art whimsy. (Whatever other virtues it has, Big D is generally not a city known for its charm.) Offhand, I can think of only two other instances of such playfulness, either overtly precious when it comes to childhood innocence — J.T. Williams’ teddy bear statues at Lakeside Park (which means they’re actually in Highland Park) — or ambiguously uplifting as in Jonathan Borofsky’s Walking to the Sky at the Nasher Sculpture Center. I discount Big Tex and Planet Hollywood’s T-Rex as more or less commercial signs.
James Michael Starr over at DallasArtsRevue has a vehemently contrary view: He dismisses “Trampling Man” as “a million-dollar Gumby.” He does admit upfront that his own competing proposal for the project was not accepted; which, he concedes probably accounts for at least some of his sense of disappointment. [See his posted comment, below.] When all of Starr’s gripes are boiled away, he does lodge one criticism with which I partly agree: Given Deep Ellum’s funky, gritty history, Traveling Man is pretty darn shiny-smiley-squeaky clean.
But then, that’s mostly par for the course for DART art and — what Starr doesn’t really note — a great deal of publicly sanctioned art in the rest of America as well. In his book, Lies Across America, history professor James Loewens argues that many of our historical markers diligently tidy up an area’s unpleasant facts into a marketable, “Chamber of Commerce” history. People — and their realtors — generally don’t like to know that in the 19th century, their neighborhood was the site of a slave market or a diptheria epidemic.
Same, too, mostly, for our non-risky, inoffensive public art.
In this regard, Starr recalls Deep Ellum as “the grungiest, punkiest, R.I.P. snortingest ‘hood between Corinth and Round Rock, and served as official road signs to every Plano kid’s wet dream of tattoos, piercings and convenient curbside urination” — a very limited and rather recent view of Deep Ellum as a naughty teen-boy playground.
That’s part of it, but the Deep Ellum I was looking to be landmarked is the Deep Ellum of Leadbelly, T-Bone Walker and Alex Moore, of the Ella B. Moore Theater (where African-Americans went) and Ma’s Place, where Babyface Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde hung out. It was once a funky neighborhood where blues met country music and Tin Pan Alley and helped create Texas blues, where blacks and Jews owned businesses, lived and mingled, certainly a rarity in Dallas. I’m also willing to bet that Starr’s own proposal and probably all the others never really addressed something else that made Deep Ellum unique in Dallas’ cultural history. Tattoo parlors and nightclubs and slumming suburbanites were hardly exclusive there; you could find them on lower Greenville or in South Dallas or along Fort Worth Avenue.
But in the ’80s through ’90s, nowhere else could you find a cluster of adventurous theater companies within a few blocks of each other: Pegasus Theatre, Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, the Exposition Street Theatre, the Undermain and the Theatre Gallery. (Dallas’ old Theater Row downtown — the Majestic is all that remains of it — was a row of performance venues and not theater companies.) It’s typical that whoever wrote Wikipedia’s utterly lopsided entry for Deep Ellum — whose basic information (surprise!) keeps popping up on city guides all over the internet and in public art proposals, I’d wager — whoever wrote it went ape for punk music. Fine by me, but he or she clearly knew comparatively little about the area’s significance in African-American music and zero about its theater history.
But frankly, I didn’t really expect any public art project to recall — to any full degree — Deep Ellum’s gamblers and murderers and “Pawnshop Row,” to commemorate the black vaudeville performers or the infamous Karen Finley’s appearance at the Theatre Gallery or the day when a Paramount Record Company executive entered R. T. Ashford’s shoeshine stand and invited Blind Lemon Jefferson to cut some “race” records in Chicago. Public art generally doesn’t salute someone like Babyface Nelson. Those are the kind of figures and details and texture and depth I’d expect in a good history museum. So I’m still waiting for that particular train.
Which means I’m perfectly happy now that Traveling Man makes people smile — and sometimes makes me hum an old Jimmie Rodgers tune as done by Johnny Cash. “Cute” on Traveling Man‘s metallic, landscape-changing scale — a 38-foot-tall, arm-waving statue — is really kinda-crazy cute, like The Simpsons’ Lard Lad come to life and come to town.