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Paul Bunyan as Social Capital

A recent vacation to Maine included an encounter with a mythic lumberjack in the city of Bangor.

One can’t help but guess that Bangor’s civic leaders felt that an imposing rendering of Mr. Bunyan would bring them karmic notoriety among tourists.  It works – the snapshot is likely all I’ll ever recall about Bangor.

Some small towns have taken to pinning every shred of civic hope on the ability to boast the biggest strawberry, lava lamp, or bull.  The sculpture-as-tourist-trap approach to salvaging the economies and identities of rural America is documented with pathos and hilarity in the 2010 documentary World’s Largest, shown last July at the Indianapolis International Film Festival.

Our own city is making more serious strides in the public art realm, including the IMA’s 100 Acres, the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library’s thinmanlittlebird, and Cardinal, designed by Jeff Laramore for the new JW Marriott Hotel plaza downtown as part of the face-lift spurred by the 2012 Super Bowl.  How refreshing that the sculpture was installed, this past March, months before the building itself is finished.  (I’m eager to hear what my fellow citizens think of this piece – please comment).

And one year from now, artist Fred Wilson will unveil an intriguing installation on the lawn of Indy’s City-County building as a response to an existing work of public art: an African-American male freed slave figure that’s part of the Indiana Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Monument, circa 1901. The conversation that’s sure to be prompted by works like Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum is a manifestation of the social capital leveraged by art in the public square.

And if an over-sized strawberry sculpture can revive a dying rural town, that’s grand too.

Filed under: Art, Musings

2 Responses to “Paul Bunyan as Social Capital”

  • avatar
    Petra Says:

    My first job was selling flowers at a greenhouse attached to a True Value. Palmer True Value to be precise. We had a “Paul” as our store mascot. He was big hit with the kids. In fact, one year someone cut him down. But lucky, something like that is hard to hide and he was returned.
    Funny to know they exist in other places.

  • avatar
    Tess Says:

    A larger-than-life statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox also reside alongside a lake in Bemidji Minnesota. My husband and I sometimes go through Bemidji on vacation treks to his home town, Thief River Falls MN, to visit his family, and Bemidji is a major stop for us along the way. Of course there is a picture of me and Paul and Babe somewhere in my “photo archives”—!!

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