New sculptures on undeveloped properties signal future changes

Authored By Mary Barnett

Chattanooga’s residents and visitors have become accustomed to enjoying or, at the least, coming into contact with sculptures installed in actively used public places, such as Renaissance Park and along East Main Street.

But on Monday morning, many may notice two new pieces of art installed in what might seem unlikely and abandoned pieces of rough, undeveloped property.

On the corner of Broad and West Main streets, a large corten steel sculpture by Albert Paley, called “Moment,” was installed Monday morning on a vacant and privately owned lot across from the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant.

Over the weekend, in the 700 block of Market Street, the sculpture “El Camino” by Chattanooga artist Cessna Decosimo was placed in the middle of an empty gravel vacant lot.

These placements are far from random, according to officials with River City Company and Public Art Chattanooga (PAC), who have facilitated the separate efforts but for similar reasons.

In each location, the art installed represents a visual signal of what is to come or what could be.

In the case of the Broad and Main location, Peggy Townsend with PAC said the installation at the busy intersection represents a beacon for future development and additional art coming this fall to West Main Street.

Townsend said the new work, which will be on view for two years, will serve as a visual beacon and gateway that is adjacent to the Main Terrain active art park, set to be completed by December.

According to Townsend, the new installation will help call attention to the area much in the same way that a large red sculpture, “Big Max” by John Henry, installed on the Main Street Fire Hall lawn in 2007 did for that area before revitalization efforts were in full swing.

Kim White with River City Company, which owns the undeveloped 700 block in the center of downtown, said she was approached by Decosimo, who told her he thought the location looked lonely.

As the group holds out for the best ideas to develop the empty block, putting a temporary piece of art in the space seemed like a simple-enough idea to warm it up a little.

“We have been planning and looking and trying to make sure that the right things happen there. In the meantime, it is a great use of art and a great place maker,” White said.

Decosimo said he is always uncomfortable seeing old structures removed and history erased, as was the case in the 700 block several years ago.

“But at the same time, now that empty block creates an opportunity,” he said.

For Decosimo, it was an opportunity for his creation in bronze to find a place to live for a while as it humanized a barren urban landscape. 

“This woman, this sculpture, is a metaphor for resisting complete deterioration and accepting chaos to maybe create something more beautiful,” he said.

During the creation of “El Camino,” Decosimo said he had to abandon his original concept that was far more ambitious, involving the use of an actual El Camino car and the bronze figure. During the process, the car was stolen, and a series of other circumstances derailed his full vision, not unlike the 700 block itself, which has experienced many false starts for redevelopment over recent years.

The impermanent nature of installations such as Decosimo’s is also a signal of how the public embraces change, according to White.

In another example, local entrepreneurs and artists took the opportunity of a fated building on the Southside to turn it into a short-term business and then an art project that would eventually be demolished. The former Discoteca building that was torn down last week was developed as an experimental dive bar in 2009 with the plan that it would only be in operation for the year before the property was sold. After the property sold and the business closed, artists then took over the exterior of the building in 2011 as a free-form canvas for graffiti and murals.

White said these efforts are not in vain and reveal much about the spirit of a community in transition.

“I think it is great that there is no sense of permanence. A city is always changing. That place turned into a great art piece. When you have things that are unexpected and pop up like that, it says a lot about our community and how we embrace change and are open to things changing,” White said.