Published Date Written by Cliff GallantWalking by the Longfellow statue recently, I was taken aback to see a six-inch by eight-inch plaque stuck on the pedestal, on the Congress Street side, right under where Longfellow's name is beautifully etched into the granite. The plaque looks like it doesn't belong. Like it's an add-on, which, of course, it is. The statue has sat there since 1891, 121 years, without a plaque on it, now it has one.
From a little distance what first catches your eye on the plaque is the Public Art logo at the bottom. Not only is it the largest item on the plaque, it takes up about a third of the space, but it's also the only graphic. A very well done logo, I have to say, but is the main purpose of the plaque to identify the statue as a piece of public art? I hadn't been aware of any confusion as to whether or not the Longfellow statue is a piece of public art, but if there has been, this plaque with the big Public Art logo settles the matter once and for all.
Get closer and you see that there are five lines of type on the plaque above the Public Art logo, one under the other: Longfellow - dedicated 1891 - Franklin Simmons - pedestal: Francis H. Fassett - United States.
Somehow I get the feeling that no one's appreciation of the statue is deepened by what they learn from the five lines of type. Names and dates don't tend to fascinate. In fact, placing the emphasis on names and dates is what gives the study of history a bad rap. This, added to the fact that the visual plane of the piece has been violated by an element foreign to it, namely the plaque, makes me seriously question the wisdom of the whole plaque idea.
At least the wisdom of attaching a plaque to the piece itself. I've long felt that there should be an attractive bronze plaque embedded in the ground around the pedestal providing some basic information about the piece. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, known as America's Poet of the Heart, was born in Portland in 1807, when Portland was a small village. This statue was erected in 1891 and funded in part by pennies donated by legions of school children, whose names are contained in a canister buried beneath the statue. That sort of thing. And maybe mention a few of his better known works, like The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Hiawatha, The Village Blacksmith, and Evangeline. Then, of course, a few short descriptive lines about the sculptor and the creator of the pedestal. There's plenty of room for a two foot by three foot plaque, say, and it would look very appealing surrounded by the wonderful floral arrangements that periodically appear around the statue.
I later discovered that the Longfellow statue is not the only piece of public art that now has a Public Art plaque attached to it, though. The pedestal of Our Lady of Victories in Monument Square has been likewise adorned, as has that of the Maine Lobsterman. One gets the sinking feeling that all of the 30 or so pieces in the city's public art collection now have Public Art plaques attached to them, but I just didn't have the appetite to go around checking.
The same thing could be done with Our Lady of Victories as with the Longfellow statue. Place a nice bronze plaque in the grass replete with pertinent information. Regards the Maine Lobsterman, it already had a plaque giving its name and that of the sculptor. It was part of the original installation. But that didn't deter the Public Art Committee. Incredibly, they attached a plaque to the pedestal that has nothing on it but the large Public Art logo. Stands right out from a distance. It's four inches square and very graphic. Really draws attention away from the piece itself.
Brings to mind the practice of placing a sticker with the purchase price on it on the frame of a piece of art. These people on the Public Art Committee all have highly developed artistic sensibilities and they would never think of doing such a thing. So what's the difference with these plaques? The pedestal is analogous to a frame.
The Public Art Committee was charged with cataloguing the city's collection of public art. How they got from that to sticking plaques on the pieces with large Public Art logos on them, who knows? The plaques are inappropriate, they interfere with the enjoyment and appreciation of the art, and, furthermore, they belie an odd kind of self-awareness on the part of the Public Art Committee.
I asked Andy Verzosa, the owner of Aucocisco Galleries, and the person who conceived of and choreographed the First Friday Art Walk, what he thought of the plaques. He paused, scrunched up his nose, and said thoughtfully: "The Public Art Committee fell short of good stewardship of the city's public art collection in this instance. The placement of the plaques apparently wasn't thought through very well. They look like blemishes on the art. It's mystifying, really."
Oh, I can't resist returning to the proposed plaque in the ground at the Longfellow statue. Picture, if you will, the poet, in the later years of his long and eventful life, sitting lost in thought, gazing down at his boyhood home, the plaque at his feet, and at the bottom of the plaque are these last two lines of his poem My Lost Youth: "A boy's will is the wind's will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."