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Art & Seek on Think TV: Giant Metal Men Invade Deep Ellum!!

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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.)

smaller lighting

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.

awakening1James 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.

little waiting

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.

Cool.

  • http://franksart.net frank

    Thanks for posting this video on the Traveling Man. Oldham and Oldenburg have put together several massive whimsical pieces of art and I like them. Having directed the murals that once graced the Good Latimer Tunnel, I can relate to having an impact on this city. When we originally painted it in 1993 all artists involved, including myself, were too naive to know this was part of the deal. I’m happy that DART took a replacement gateway into considerationf or the area which resulted in this project. It’s not the tunnel, but the tunnel smelled pretty bad sometimes and these new additions to the neighborhood do not.

    I can understand the naysayers in their critique of these sculptures being non-risky, inoffensive public art but in my opinion, life is short and a little irreverence can get you through some mighty tough times. As a long time patron of the area I’ve noticed some folks get awfully uptight about the current state of the neighborhood. The fact is Deep Ellum has been here long before us and will be so long after us so lighten up and be happy you’re here now. If the Traveling Man brings a smile to someones face, then what’s so wrong about that?

    Last but not least, I agree that whoever wrote the wiki on Deep Ellum did indeed miss plenty of detail on the area’s rich cultural heritage. I’m not sure how anyone would go about rectifying these blatant omissions. On a lesser note of importance, I can assure you that my former art studio / live music venue ‘Studio D’ way back in 1982 did indeed have a stage.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyLfBoUHd-U&feature=channel_page

  • http://www.jamesmichaelstarr.com James Michael Starr

    Jerome: Thanks so much for your thoughtful and intelligent response to the Deep Ellum Gateway project, as well as to my article on Dallas Arts Revue. Please allow me to clarify several of the points I expressed there and in other places.

    First, to address what I described in the third paragraph of that article: If you’ll re-read it, you’ll see my disappointment was not connected to having my own proposal rejected, mention of which was offered in the spirit of full disclosure. Whatever letdown I felt about that rejection, I got over soon enough, and if I were now holding a grudge two years later, it would make me a pretty sick puppy. Rather, my disappointment is with the DART selection itself.

    I’m concerned about the misunderstanding because, though you’ve not accused me of it yourself, it could be very easy for anyone who doesn’t read my entire article to dismiss it all as sour grapes. But to come to that conclusion would be to assume that I, along with every other artist who submitted a proposal that was rejected, is disqualified from expressing an intelligent opinion because we could only be responding out of bitterness.

    To those who might assume that, I think it should make more sense that instead of a childish reaction we might have an especially well-informed opinion. I for one studied DART’s RFP to understand their goals, attended meetings with the agency and with neighborhood groups, and did the kind of research necessary to compete in an international competition for a prestigious and lucrative project.

    But enough about that.

    In my article, I did indeed describe Deep Ellum in terms of what it had become, but just like you I wish the Deep Ellum Gateway project could have made some intelligent reference to the parts we speak of proudly, rather than doing an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-stye memory deletion. In the research I did for my own proposal, I was fascinated by all the history that had been made there since the railroads first came through, Blues and otherwise, and I bet I wasn’t the only artist whose concept at least tipped its hat to some aspect of that colorful story, that is, in some way other than a head like a guitar. But public art isn’t the same thing as a historical marker, and I doubt anyone proposed either to drag out the dirty laundry or to whitewash it.

    Finally, let me explain why I characterize my response as disappointment:

    We artists aren’t exactly known for our ambition, but I have a way of overcoming my own laziness and energizing myself to make art so I won’t someday feel regret over wasting too much time. I do it by seeing opportunities. Every gallery show or juried exhibition or similar challenge I see as an opportunity. It can be capitalized on to push me as an artist, to make my work better, to move me one step closer to a dream where my work sells at a level that provides a livable income. On a lucky day, it might even mean making some small contribution to beauty in the world.

    Or it can be squandered. I love taking advantage of opportunities, and I hate squandering them. So much so that I cringe when I look around me and see others’ opportunities lost.

    Now, for whatever decline it suffered, Deep Ellum was once a blues and jazz mecca renowned throughout the south. These are the kinds of legacies that soulful cities, cities with a heart and mind, preserve, or if impossible to preserve, at least memorialize in some way. DART had not just a remarkable 1.3 million dollar budget, but also a wonderful opportunity. Not only to, in their very own words, “create the next step in the artistic identity that is Deep Ellum,” but also to make some contribution of beauty or magic to our city. Does anyone really think they made the most of their opportunity by commissioning this giant cartoon character, whimsical or not?

    I maintain they made the kind of choice small minds in a small town would make. And I’m disappointed at the squandered opportunity.

  • http://barrykooda.com Barry Kooda

    Great work, guys!
    These are going to become Dallas icons to the entire world.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdorn/ Scott Dorn

      These sculptures are the shot in the arm Deep Ellum needed, along with the mural projects on the walls of Good Latimer. There are those who want Deep Ellum to look like another anytown USA. I am here to tell you I want Deep Ellum to be preserved and be the place for all things art. For artists like myself, Deep Ellum provides the avenue for artists to sell their creations. I am a Dallas native who witnessed the demolition of the tunnel It fired up a lot of emotions, but I believe the sculpture along with the art will make Deep Ellum a place to be. Though I miss the tunnel I don’t miss the booze bottles and the smell of urine and feces often found there. The current mural project is much better than anyone could have imagined and the station will be cleaner than the tunnel was.
      I am so proud of all the artists who have put their time and effort in the work. Mostly I feel they should have gotten more money for what they did especially the muralists all of them have to work regular jobs just to fund their art project. For all of those naysayers, I disagree. Nothing was squandered. If you want more art and bigger, reach into your pockets and support the artists. but It takes money to invest. In short put up or shut up.

      I love the art
      Scott

  • Karen

    First time sculpture I saw was the guy waiting for the train playing the guitar. It wasn’t near completion, and it only roughly resembled what it was. My first thought was that it was accidental, but the more I looked, the more I saw the man and the guitar. Now it has been refined and is more obviously a sculpture. I was delighted when I figured out what it was when it was in its raw state. I was even more delighted when I found out there were three of these metal men in the area. I drove my daughter and her friends past so they could see these “cool” guys that had suddenly appeared. If teenagers and “old ladies” can be equally impressed, I think you have a winner. They may not be “great art”, they may not make a big “statement”, but they are iconic, entertaining, and evocative of the feelings of Deep Ellum. What more can we ask for? I predict they will be a draw for tourists and natives alike.

    Central Park has Alice in Wonderland. Dallas has its Traveling Men!

    • http://www.artandseek.org Jerome Weeks

      I definitely agree, Karen, about the sculptures becoming sightseeing ‘must-sees’ — and you and your daughter didn’t even get to sit on the birds.