Alaska's 'most controversial sculpture' gets a new home

It’s been an eventful life for Nimbus, an abstract sculpture created by Robert Murray in 1977 and installed at Juneau’s Dimond Courthouse in 1978. From the start, some people didn’t like it. Juneau residents wrote letters for and against it. In 1982, it acquired graffiti. State legislators attached riders to popular bills in order to try and get it removed.

 

But in 1984, when one of those riders succeeded and a crew torched the sculpture off along its base, leaving inches of it buried in downtown Juneau, some of Nimbus’ detractors were surprised when museums around the country expressed interest in acquiring it for their own collections.

It spent six years in the state’s maintenance yard. Bruce Kato, then chief curator at the Alaska State Museum, spoke with Murray about acquiring the sculpture as a historical artifact — it had the distinction of being “Alaska’s most controversial sculpture,” Murray said.

A group called Friends of Nimbus, led by Judges Robert Boochever and Tom Stewart, helped raise private donations to install it at the museum, where it remained for a long while. Now outside the new Alaska State Museum building, the ten-ton sculpture is getting a new life, and a place of honor.

Before he designed Nimbus, Murray came to Juneau and spent time exploring the area, fjords and icefield included. Nimbus is inspired by Southeast Alaska’s landscape in “a very indirect sort of way,” he said.

“The fact that it’s sort of vertical and has that kind of billowing feeling to it — it reminded me a lot of the terrain up here… It’s not that it represents a plant, or an animal, or a particular landform, but it was inspired by qualities that this place has,” Murray said.

The sculpture is made out of twisting plates of steel an inch thick. All together, it’s 12 feet across, between 18 ½ and 19 feet tall, and weighs ten tons.

The parts of the sculpture with the edges perpendicular to the ground “act as a foil to the more free-flowing elements,” Murray said.

Recently the artist, whose work is in museums around the United States and Canada, came to Juneau to supervise the final stages of the sculpture’s restoration, and to help position it at its new home.

Welders Sherman Johnson of Acme Welding, Russ Shivers of T&S welding, and Carlton Shorey were integral to the restored product, said Deputy Director of Alaska State Libraries, Archives and Museums Bob Banghart.

“They’re great guys,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

They welded a metal apron around Nimbus’ base. When the sculpture was torched out of its downtown location, it was cut unevenly, throwing off its lines. One side was two and a half inches lower than it should have been.

“I was amazed it was that far out of whack,” Murray said. “It’s funny how such a subtle, insignificant seeming detail can make such a big difference to the piece… (What’s important is) what’s vertical and what’s not vertical. It’s the kind of billowing out of the shape… that’s where it got its name from.”

Donald Lippincott, who founded the fabricator where Nimbus was first created, spends time in Southeast Alaska and has come to check on it over the years, Banghart said.

“It’s very rare to have the original sculptor and fabricator overseeing the resurrection of a piece,” Banghart said.

Now that it’s in place in front of the new museum building, Nimbus will get sanded and repainted — its current coat of paint is very faded, Murray said. The new metal at the bottom will also be painted.

Art critics widely credit Murray with helping to redefine public art.

“I think almost whenever you put art out in the public domain… you suddenly confront a lot of people who just plain aren’t interested, but particularly aren’t knowledgeable about changes that have taken place in the arts over the years,” Murray said.

Some viewers are familiar with a piece’s context within art and art history, Murray said. Others aren’t, and to them, pieces like Nimbus can appear jarring and foreign.

“I feel sympathetic toward people who you do that to, so to say,” Murray said, laughing.

Regardless of how much people know about art before they see one of his pieces, those with whom he’s interested in engaging are curious about and interested in what they see.

“I always feel if the work isn’t somewhat provocative, then you’ve failed,” he said. “It’s not that it’s meant to be controversial, necessarily, but that it’s meant to be provocative.”

As far as what the sculpture “means,” “the information is all there,” Murray said. “They just have to walk around it, and experience it… and rely more on… whatever emotional response they have to it than anything else. In that sense, it’s very democratic. It’s there for anybody that wants to take the time to look at it and puzzle it out.”

The museum is on track to have its exterior completed by the end of October, for PCL Construction, the contractor, to turn it over to the state in April, and to be open to the public in May, Banghart said.

 

 

• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

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