The Story Behind the Statue
When I picked up a copy of Folio Weekly’s Fall Arts Preview [“Flying Colors,” Sept. 4], I have to admit that I was initially bothered by the image on the front cover. There was the youthful figure atop the centerpiece sculpture in Riverside’s Memorial Park, sporting a pink knitted tutu with matching ballet slippers dangling from one outstretched arm. Some, like me, who are aware of the historic significance of this iconic sculpture, might perceive this as debasing “Life,” a Beaux Arts work that was conceived and sculpted by St. Augustine artist Charles Adrian Pillars as the only memorial in the state honoring all of the 1,220 Floridians who died in the first World War (FYI, the sculpture has long been mislabeled as “Winged Victory”).
But history is not static and many don’t know what lies beneath that pink tutu. The backstory is compelling and certainly relevant today as we grapple with our country’s role in conflicts on distant shores. Pillars wrote of how moved and inspired he was by “the typical spirit of the boys who went overseas,” who sacrificed comfort, well-being, even life itself to try to bring peace to a world full of “strife, greed and hate.” He described his monument to them like this: “Spiritualized Life, symbolized by the winged figure of youth holding aloft an olive branch, rises triumphant from the swirl of war’s chaos which engulfs humanity, and faces the future courageously.” The full text of Pillars’ description of the sculpture is available to read at memparkjax.org under the Master Plan.
What, I wondered, was Folio Weekly thinking?
This was clearly a provocation of some sort, but what was it all about? As a member of the Board of Directors of the Memorial Park Association Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving, restoring and maintaining the park for the past 30 years, I am perhaps more sensitive than most to any potential damage to the park’s priceless assets. The park has been no stranger to costly vandalism, and I do not think we should set a precedent that condones climbing onto a classical piece of sculpture. Fortunately, in this instance, no physical harm was done, and indeed it sparked my interest and I assume the interest of others. I began to see this as an opportunity to bring attention to the park and its vital role in our community.
After reading “Fiber Threat” and learning about the goals of the guerilla knitters and their desire to use their form of non-destructive yarn-storming or graffiti knitting as a way to engage with the public, “to change perceptions” of public objects, including public art, I was intrigued. Their mission to make it “more approachable” with the expressed goal to “enliven, intercede, and raise recognition of public space as an accessible experience for us all and to make us aware of the power we all have to shape and improve the overlooked spaces we move through every day,“ began to change my perception. We appeared to be of one accord. So, perhaps we need to share what lies beneath the park’s history and not just that knitted tutu.
Memorial Park was conceived by the Jacksonville Rotary Club in November 1918, the day after the Armistice was signed to end the war, and it continues to be the largest and most powerfully expressive memorial in this state dedicated to all Floridians who died in that devastating war. The park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architectural Firm, is also nationally significant, as it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been called the finest small urban park that exists in the nation today.
Locally, the park is a “great, good place,” inviting people from all walks of life. Since its inception, the park has been a venue for weddings, picnics, pickup football, soccer, veterans’ events, lunch breaks on park benches, fishing, strolling with babies and even power-walking with friends; the list goes on.
So much of what makes for a cherished public space depends on the quality of the “art” that is involved in its design. Memorial Park’s broad paths, powerful sculptures, location along the river and its extensive tree canopy and landscape plantings are all artfully designed as a powerful draw. Because the park is so inviting, it's easy to spend time in the park and not notice that there are some less visible threats to this important community resource. The park’s design structure is solid and inviting. It does, however, need more attention to certain elements of landscape maintenance, fountain and sculpture restoration, signage and lighting; even more significantly, the park has some serious infrastructure needs that must be met to sustain the park now and into the future. We invite all those who value Memorial Park to join with us and others to learn more about the historical significance of the park and its role in the current life of our community, and help us as we work to sustain this gem in perpetuity. Please visit memparkjax.org.