Columbus, Indiana, is known nationwide as an oasis of Modern architecture. Architectural scholars and art lovers from across the nation are drawn to the small town in southern Indiana to admire and study features like the towering spire of North Christian Church or the glass curtain wall of Columbus City Hall. In fact, an independent film called Columbus, starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson alongside Michael Cera, was filmed in the city this summer. Columbus architecture is at the heart of the film, serving as both backdrop and catalyst for personal introspection and relationships. But architecture is not all Columbus has to offer. Dotted around the city and beneath the tidy edifices of the buildings stand many examples of the city’s peculiar art scene.
1) Chaos I
Chaos I is an example of kinetic art by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. Built in the early 1970s for display in Columbus’ original Commons Mall, Chaos I is one of the most adored and recognized sculptures in the city. Visitors immediately notice the rusty 30-foot-tall machine as a poignant source of contrast from the renovated sleek and modern Commons Mall that houses it today.
Chaos I is alive — numerous pulleys, cranks, wheels, and rods whir and spin, clank and clatter, upon a large metal frame. Painted metal panels in geometric shapes rotate slowly as a tracked carriage moves back and forth across the machine. The soft, mechanical ambience of the machine’s moving parts is punctuated on a regular interval by the rolling descent of metal spheres that rattle and bang their way through cage-like pathways. Sound is key in the design of Chaos I — the machine has 13 functions that vary based on the machine’s “mood” and are automatically toggled throughout the day. A visitor may hear the moving parts purr in the morning and growl in the evening.
Transformations, a sculpture by Howard Meehan, is made of dichroic glass and brushed steel. Meant to be a landmark for Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, the statue was dedicated just in time for the campus’ 40th anniversary in 2010. As part of the Reeves Sculpture Garden, the statue consists of a candelabra-like spire that supports refractive glass panels. The glass panels were constructed to split some wavelengths of light but not others, which creates beautiful patterns of light and color within the panels. The metal ring that surrounds the middle of the statue sways slightly on a windy day. Many of Meehan’s works are influenced by literature — Transformations is inspired by Benjamin Disraeli, a British politician, educator, and writer. One of Disraeli’s quotes is prominently displayed on a concrete wall behind the spire: “A university must be a place of life, of liberty, and of learning.” As such, the three dichroic glass panels represent those values.
3) Welte Orchestrion
The 1908 Welte orchestrion is an automated music-making machine that resides in Zaharakos, a Victorian-themed ice cream parlor and one of downtown Columbus’ oldest restaurants. The orchestrion is essentially an elaborate pipe organ that plays from a music roll, much like a player piano. It also contains an array of other instruments, such as three different drums and a triangle, meant to sound like a full orchestra. Technology like this originated in the mid-1800s and remained popular through at least the 1920s, but working examples are hard to come by today. Thanks to restoration efforts, the orchestrion belts out its orchestral tunes as if it were brand new.
Skopos is a metal sculpture by Rick Bauer located in Mill Race Park. Translated from Greek, its name means “the watcher.” Although the angular arch is 15 feet tall, weighs 2,000 pounds, and sits upon a heavy base, flooding of the White River in 2008 managed to carry it downstream nearly 30 years after its dedication. It seemed as if Skopos was gone for good. Almost two months passed before it was found near the senior center. The statue has since been restored and returned to its original location, keeping vigil over the river. After the flood, Skopos has become not only a piece of Columbus’ artistic heritage but also a reminder of the river’s power.
A statue by Dessa Kirk, Eos was initially displayed downtown in 2006. Though the statue was originally just another entry in a statue-design contest a decade ago, the citizens of Columbus adored Eos so much that it was purchased and given a permanent home in the city. Eos, named after the Greek goddess of morning, has stood at the end of 5th Street, facing west in the direction of the sun’s movement, ever since. The statue is constructed of metal and coated in copper-colored paint. When morning glories climb up the base of the statue in the summer, it is easy to see why it is one of the most beloved artworks in the city.
6) Sun Garden Panels in Suspended Circle
When most people think of Dale Chihuly’s art, they think of the vibrant coral-like swirls of glass like the Yellow Neon Chandelier in the Visitors Center. However, Chihuly’s Sun Garden Panels in Suspended Circle, which was commissioned specifically for the Columbus Learning Center’s Sun Garden, is a little different. The painted plexiglass panels light up against the skylight above them, and each panel represents some of Chihuly’s other sculptures. In addition, every piece of Garden Panels bears the creator’s signature and brings a little bit of Chihuly’s art from other regions of the world to Columbus.
7) Friendship Way
Standing apart from what is traditionally considered a sculpture, Friendship Way is dedicated to the intercultural ties shared between Columbus and its sister city of Miyoshi, Japan. Colored lights of various shapes, arranged in a geometric pattern, adorn the walls of the walkway and light up at night with a glow reminiscent of paper lanterns. The intersecting lights were designed by Cork Marcheschi as a continuous sculpture. The landscaping and project design was by William A. Johnson and features ornate plants on the edges of the alley. Names of citizens from Miyoshi adorn the walkway’s bricks, just like how Washington Street’s bricked sidewalk in Columbus bears names of Columbus’ citizens.
8) Luckey Climber
Functional art can be found all over Columbus in the form of observatories, bridges, and fire stations, but the Luckey Climber in the Commons Mall redefines this altogether. As one of 25 jungle gyms designed by Tom Luckey, the Luckey Climber is one of the quintessential pieces of Columbus’ new downtown attractions. Enclosed and supported by five large beams and aircraft cabling, the Climber resembles something from a fantasy. Unlike some of the other designs by Luckey, which reside in children’s museums and paid venues, the playground at the Commons is free and close to Zaharakos and other downtown eateries.
Dozens of other artful treasures are dotted throughout the city, such as Flamenco, whose zig-zagging arches and energetic red paint add life to Washington Street. Exploded Engine in Cummins’ corporate headquarters building shows the smallest of detail in a diesel engine and never fails to dazzle guests. Some art is well hidden — such as mysterious sculptures like The Family at Parkside Elementary that may be noticed only by the children who pass it every day.
Art and architecture are highly regarded by the citizens of Columbus. Richard McCoy, the director of Landmark Columbus, says, “I see the architecture, art, and design as representations and the outcomes of a community striving for excellence, trying to be cost effective, forward-thinking, and aspiration.” Along those lines, the city is hosting a symposium, called Exhibit Columbus, which will take place from September 29 through October 1.
“Exhibit Columbus is an annual exploration of architecture, art, design, and community,” McCoy says. “I hope that the project allows a wide variety of folks the opportunity to better understand the internationally renowned design heritage of this community while at the same time considering the future of architecture, art, and making in the middle of America.”
More information on Exhibit Columbus and how to attend can be found on their website.