Committee polishes sculpture series

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After Oppenheimer and Groves, who else?

By Roger Snodgrass

A citizen advisory committee pushed ahead this week on a master plan for adorning the landscape with life-size historical figures.

The main issue seemed to be how many famous, representative or otherwise intriguing characters there have been in the relatively short history of modern Los Alamos and what to do with them, mostly in the downtown historical district.

Who would be where?

Who might best represent the “six eras” of Los Alamos staked out by the committee going back to the prehistoric period and where in the historic district or elsewhere might each era be featured?

Might Dorothy McKibbin, the famous greeter for the top-secret Manhattan Project be located in Santa Fe, where her official duties were carried out?

The first phase of the current draft includes a Puebloan potter, a Ranch School era scout, a Hispanic homesteader, a U.S. Army WAC (Women in the Air Corps) and SED (Special Engineer Detachment) and Norris Bradbury, representing the Cold War era.

A second phase would surround the homesteader with a sculptural family and fill out the scene representing the ancestral puebloan era. The author, Peggy Pond Church, would be added to the Ranch School era display, and a statue of Oppenheimer’s deputy, Deak Parsons, would complement the Manhattan period, according to a draft that is going through a final round of editing.  A British scientist, Jim Tuck, Polish mathematician Stanaslaw Ulam and computer pioneer Nicholas Metropolis might be added for the Cold War era.

During the meeting Monday, Hedy Dunn, Los Alamos Historical Museum director and a member of the committee, said the ideal list should inspire discussion.

“If they look at the list and say, ‘How could there not be so-and-so, then you have a good list,” she said.

Rather than adding more names committee member Ron Wilkins, encouraged more selectivity – a couple of statues at each place. The committee also discussed the idea of a creating a trail of sidewalk medallions between the Bradbury Science Museum and the historical district to include other historical luminaries who are not represented as sculpture.

The project started with the idea of a statue of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the founding director of the scientific laboratory at Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was made.

County council approved that suggestion by the Art in Public Places Board in October 2008, but they questioned the recommended location.

The arts board had suggested a spot between Fuller Lodge and the Historical Museum, but the council wanted something in full view from Central Avenue.

When the committee came back to the council a few months later in early 2009, councilors approved the contract for an Oppenheimer sculpture with Santa Fe artist Susanne Vertel.

But in the process Councilor Robert Gibson suggested the sculpture should become the first step in a more elaborate plan for public sculptures. The council decided they wanted to see a bigger picture.

This led to a joint effort by the Fuller Lodge Historic Districts Advisory Board and the Arts in Public Place Board, who have formed a Historical Sculptures Master Plan Committee, which was duly chartered by the council to extend the plan to the next five to 10 years.

The committee devised a highly refined metric for evaluating locations, based on historical context, visual context, the overall route and considerations of safety, security and upkeep.

On Dec. 16, at their final meeting this year, councilors approved a second life-sized sculpture.  This one would be of General Leslie Groves, the army engineer who led the Manhattan Project for the Pentagon during World War II.

The plan was to site Oppenheimer and Groves in conversation together, committee chair Nancy Bartlit told the council.

Before the vote on the commissioning the Groves statue, Council Chair Michael Wheeler strongly endorsed the project.

“I have to comment that of all the art in public places that the county has sponsored through the years this exceeds by far anything we have ever done and is more representative of the community than most of the other artwork that we have purchased,” he said.

Councilor Gibson was still not satisfied with the new locations, as described, saying they were still somewhat ambiguous.

“If we are close to getting a master plan for this set of sculptures,” he suggested, “It would be better to look at the locations according to that plan.”

It was determined that the Groves sculpture was likely to take about eight months to create. The Oppenheimer sculpture meanwhile is almost ready, but would not be set up until the Groves figure was ready, since the two are to be installed together.

Council unanimously approved a contract with Vertel to begin work on Groves, with the ultimate placement pending the committee’s master plan.