In the 1980’s Carmel, Indiana wanted to get out of the shadow of being just another hamlet of Indianapolis. How did this burgeoning little ‘burb achieve their goal?
Lifelike bronze sculptures on every street corner. Lofty murals splashed on walls. And galleries as far as the eye can see.
Forget Indianapolis. Welcome to Artropolis – which I would have missed if it weren’t for my stalwart Uber driver, Don Thornton.
Thornton asked if I had time for a nickel tour. Fortunately, he knows a thing or two about shuttling people from Point A to Point B. He’s a proud Carmel resident and drives a school bus for the district. If Thornton wasn’t adamant I check out Carmel’s Downtown Arts & Design District, I likely wouldn’t have spied the city’s famed bronze sculptures.
“These sculptures are so popular because they are so lifelike,” said Thornton “They give a sense there's always someone on the streets in Downtown Carmel … a unique and special sense of community.”
The “Man-On-The-Street” series was the brainchild of sculptor Seward Johnson who has designed and created more than 250 life-size bronze sculptures in countries throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. (He’s also the grandson of the founder of Johnson & Johnson Co. – because, of course, he is.) Carmel’s Mayor Jim Brainard has long been a fan. He started purchasing the statues back in 2005. There are now fifteen sculptures scattered throughout Carmel’s downtown corridor. Each statue is wildly detailed, yet perfectly encapsulates those everyday slice-of-moments – like a man reading the morning paper or a woman walking her dog.
“Seward Johnson spends a lot of time observing people; how they stand with one another in a crowd, how they lean in to talk, how they sit themselves comfortably on a bench,” said Jenée Castellanos, Associate Curator for The Seward Johnson Atelier. “He is an avid people watcher and the results of that avocation find their way into the details of the gestures and poses of the bronzes. His ideas come from these times. He’ll enjoy watching a conversation and bring that conversation back into his studio and design a 12-inch tall maquette (model) in clay to begin a piece." Castellanos also mentioned the process takes about a year – give or take – from conception to installation.
Oddly enough – according to the Indianapolis Star – Seward has never visited Carmel mainly because he doesn’t like to fly. But the city is privy to owning the biggest bulk of his statues anywhere in the world. How eerily realistic are they? “We get cell phone shots, fun comments online, and a lot of ‘I did a total double-take!’ statements”, said Castellanos. “People tell us that they embarrassed themselves asking a bronze sculpture for directions or the time.”
In addition to his bronzed-to-scale work, Seward is also renowned for bigger … much bigger … sculptures. “Some people have seen the 30-foot tall Marilyn Monroe (“Forever Marilyn”) or the sailor and nurse kissing from Times Square (“Embracing Peace”)”, said Castellanos. “These are stunning pieces that really have become popular all over the world.”
Carmel has spent over $1.5 million dollars on all the statues … 15 of which are Seward’s creations. “The unique design of these sculptures truly turns heads because of their life-like appearance. We feel these realistic sculptures enhance the enjoyment of a visit to the District,” said Brainard. “They have become very popular among visitors who are quick to whip out their cell phones to pose for selfies. We also have noticed that some of our more spirited residents and visitors like to dress the statues in their favorite sports team regalia before big games; or scarves and mittens will suddenly appear on the statutes before a snowstorm. Clearly, the public is having fun with them. We also realize the tremendous impact that the arts have on economic development.”
Despite the occasional criticism that the works were too spendy, Brainard is undaunted and proud of how much buzz the Arts & Design District has created – as buzz is always good for business. “This area has been transformed from vacant storefronts to a thriving shopping and dining destination of more than 200 businesses, many of them arts and design related,” said Brainard. “It’s actually nice to hear complaints about parking on busy weekends. I know there are a lot of cities and towns across the Midwest that would love to have that problem.”
Learn more upcoming Carmel International Arts Festival
For more information on Seward Johnson visit: www.sewardjohnsonatelier.org