subscribe: Posts | Comments

‘Uncommon Friends’ in need of a sponsor

0 comments

On May 17th, the City’s Public Art Committee unanimously voted to eliminate the water feature of the Uncommon Friends public artwork in Centennial Park unless a sponsor is found by Thanksgiving, 2022. Uncommon Friends is one of 23 public artworks created by the late Don (D.J.) Wilkins over a 25-year span beginning in the mid-80s. The artist’s widow, Jeanne Wilkins, and several of D.J.’s friends are spearheading the campaign ort to find a sponsor for Uncommon Friends so that it can be kept just as Wilkins conceived and created the installation in 1988.

Uncommon Friends depicts a seated Henry Ford, kneeling Harvey Firestone and reclining Thomas Edison gathered around a campfire on a 20-foot island set within the center of a 40-foot diameter pool.  In the water surrounding the island are life-size sculptures of a mother alligator and her five babies, a mother manatee and her calf, otters, 16 fish, four floating lily pad groups that are piped as fountain heads, and 12 frogs sitting on top of six small protrusions of land which similarly double as fountain heads.

The fountain heads provide an auditory feature that Wilkins found particularly important. “Because we are 70 percent water, people naturally find the sound of water both relaxing and inspirational,” Wilkins remarked in a 2011 interview. “That’s what they’re intended to do for everyone who visits Uncommon Friends.”

Wilkins was commissioned to create Uncommon Friends by former Mayor Art Hammel, who once proclaimed Wilkins to be the “Sculptor of Fort Myers.” Wilkins researched the piece, collaborated with Uncommon Friends author James D. Newton (who gave Wilkins permission to use the title of his book as the name for the artwork), and engineered, wired, piped and constructed the fountain and pool.

However, 34 years later, Uncommon Friends’ water feature now requires expensive yearly maintenance chiefly because of the way the public interacts with it in an age denoted by selfies, photo ops and social media.

True, some of the required repairs are the result of corrosion. For financial reasons, Wilkins was not able to use stainless steel or aluminum to support the sixteen fish seen swimming in the tidal pool. Instead, he used rebar, which is now causing the fish to crack and crumble. Additionally, the liquid chlorine and chlorine tablets that City staff periodically adds to the pool to keep the water clean and clear compromises other elements, such as the water lilies, which have brass components.

But these maintenance challenges pale in comparison to the damage caused by people wading into the pool to cool off or hopscotching across the outcroppings of rock or on the backs of the manatee and alligator to reach the island to take selfies and photographs with the three inventors. Some also try to walk on the water lilies only to discover they are free floating and won’t support their weight. Comprised of a composite shell filled with a self-leveling grout similar to Boston Whaler foam, none of the elements inside the pool were designed or intended to support the weight of an adult or even a child.

The City funded a complete restoration of Uncommon Friends between November of 2018 and February 2019 at a cost of $69,904. This sum not only included patching holes, but also recasting and replacing several missing frogs and water lilies.

The work was performed by Rosa Lowinger & Associates (RLA), a Miami-based team of experts experienced in repairing and maintaining works of public art. RLA returned earlier this year to clean and perform routine maintenance on the artwork in anticipation of the completion of the new amphitheater and redesigned park only to find that the animals and water lilies in the pool had suffered considerable damage from people crossing over to the island for photo ops with Edison, Ford and Firestone. RLA had estimated the cost of routine maintenance at $6,000, but it will now cost an additional $10,763 to repair this additional damage, which includes reconstructing the water lilies and repainting everything in the water feature, including the bottom of the pool.

This prompted the Committee’s Chairperson, Carolyn Gora, to invoke the provisions of the Committee’s formal City Council-approved Deaccession Policy.

By ordinance, the public art fund only receives money when the City embarks upon a “capital improvement project” of $250,000 or more. Since 2017, there has only been one qualifying project. As a consequence, the public art program is chronically underfunded when it comes to maintaining the City’s collection as a whole. Last year the Committee proposed, and City Council approved, a Sponsor-A-Sculpture program to work around these limitations. But so far, only the Fort Myers-Lee County Garden Council has stepped forward to sponsor one of the City’s artworks, in their case, Lorelei, the decapitated siren who now resides in the Berne Davis Garden on Virginia Street.

Wilkins’ widow, along with long-time friend Brent Sheneman, are actively seeking one or more sponsors to underwrite these cost so that Uncommon Friends can be kept just as Wilkins designed and built it. This entails a five-year $10,000-$12,000 annual commitment. Mrs. Wilkins and Sheneman are hopeful they can find like-minded folks who desire to keep the Uncommon Friends water feature notwithstanding the cost of repairing the damage caused by the public annually.

If a sponsor does not come forward, the Committee is prepared to recommend to City Council that the mother alligator and her five babies, momma manatee and her calf, otters, all 16 fish, four floating lily pad groups and 12 frogs be removed and returned to Mrs. Wilkins and be replaced with saw grass or similar plant material.

Deaccessioning the fountain feature and its figures would also require Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) approval.

Even if HPC and City Council approve the elimination of the water feature, the island with the tree inventors will be retained as is. The Committee also plans to rededicate the three statues to remind the public not only of Edison, Ford and Firestone’s legendary friendship, but the role they played in pioneering leisure travel in the early part of the 20th century, especially the use of cars and trucks for visiting campsite and other vacation destinations.

While the use of saw grass would arguably provide a more historically accurate and realistic depiction of where the inventors camped during their outings in the Florida Everglades, in Gora’s estimation, and that of the Committee as a whole, it understandably comes down to money.

First, several Committee members feel it is not proper or prudent to commit such a large percentage of the limited funds available to the Committee to maintain one artwork. Since 2018, there has only been enough money in the public art fund to maintain The Florida Panthers and the Wes Nott Memorial. RLA started work on The Spirit of Fort Myers (more popularly known as Rachel at the Well) in February but, here again, the statue needed more work than was covered by the conservators’ budget estimate. Several other artworks, including Fire Dance in Centennial Park West, the Caloosahatchee Manuscripts light sculptures on the sidewalk outside the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center and several of the Carmona sculptures are in need of immediate attention.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the Committee expressed concern about spending thousands of dollars to repair the pieces in the water feature that are subject to continual breakage since there is no realistic way to prevent or discourage the public from seeking selfies and photo ops with the three inventors.

Wilkins and Scheneman, however, advocate to maintain Uncommon Friends as it was originally intended and highlight the importance of the history and heritage of the monument has to the City and its public art program.

If you would like to sponsor Uncommon Friends or any of the City’s 39 other outdoor public artworks, please contact the City’s Public Art Consultant, Tom Hall, either by phone at 239-691-2292 or via email at tom@artswfl.com or by completing the form on the Sponsor-A-Sculpture page on the City’s website.

And please go here for more information on the City of Fort Myers’ Sponsor-A-Sculpture program.

June 14, 2022.

PHOTO KEY:

  • Photos 1 & 2 depict Uncommon Friends prior to changes made to Centennial Park East incident to installation of amphitheater.
  • Photos 3 – 10 reflect condition of Uncommon Friends artwork on October 14, 2021.
  • Photos 11 to 22 reflect condition of Uncommon Friends artwork on March 4, 2022 after cleaning and maintenance by Rosa Lowinger & Associates.
  • Photos 23 to the end show Uncommon Friends‘ condition after completion of the conservation in February of 2019.

Comments are closed.