‘Firebird’ and Charlotte: A 5-year love affair

She’s a spike-haired chick who’s always ready to dance. Her eyes don’t match. She wears polyester and still seems stylish. She opens her arms to every passer-by, but men never get tired of her.

Neither do women, children, wedding parties, sniffing dogs, camera-toting tourists, selfie-seeking locals, occasional skateboarders (who are kept away from the object of their passion by metal studs in the ground) and most anyone else who walks in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.

Devotees call her “Firebird,” “Disco Chicken,” even “Big Bird” (heard from a passing elementary-schooler). Let’s give the lady her proper name: “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu Sur l’Arche,” or “The Large Bird of Fire on the Arch.” And let’s wish Charlotte’s most important icon a happy fifth anniversary on Tryon Street Monday.

Don’t think she’s No. 1? What would be? El Grande Disco, the darkly handsome cog that has stood for more than 35 years at Trade and Tryon streets? The four figurative statues girdling that crossroads? The Queen Charlotte sculpture at the airport, which has been bounced around by redesign of the parking lots?

None of those has the charm of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 17-foot, 5-inch combination of mirrors and colored glass. None inspires the desire to be seen with it or make sure visiting friends and family members see it, too. None says “fun” in a city that needs joie de vivre as desperately as a gray suit needs a red pocket handkerchief.

Two months before the Bechtler opened in 2010, you could see her perched on her pedestal. (The nickname “Disco Chicken” arose from the mistaken idea that the arch represented legs in bell-bottom pants.)

Cameras popped on Nov. 3, 2009, as a concealing cloth sailed skyward above the figure. I watched sunlight glint from nearby windows, seeming to set the bird aflame. (An apt metaphor for a phoenix.) Swiss-born industrialist Andreas Bechtler, whose family’s collection gives the museum its name, stood by with a shy smile.

“We asked, ‘What could hold its own against the muscular geometry of the building?’ ” recalls John Boyer, the Bechtler’s president. “Andreas had seen the Firebird at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens (in a touring exhibit), and we never thought seriously about putting anything else there.”

Bechtler’s family had a long relationship with Saint Phalle and her husband, artist Jean Tinguely, and Andreas negotiated a sale with her estate in 2006. (Saint Phalle, who made the Firebird in 1991, died in 2002.) It came here in two segments weighing a collective 1,433 pounds and covered with about 7,500 mirrors.

“Adding a piece as fragile as that shows we trust the community as a whole with stewardship and ownership,” Boyer says. “We still suffer the indignities of occasional miscreants, but that’s part of making the whole collection available to as broad a spectrum as possible.”

‘Star of public art’

Speaking of ownership, you can buy Firebird puzzles, coasters (designed to look like the mirrored tile), T-shirts, postcards, notecards, magnets and a pendant that hangs on a chain. Sadly, you can’t yet buy desk-sized versions or holiday ornaments, cool as those would be. The museum has to negotiate such ideas with Saint Phalle’s estate, but Boyer hasn’t ruled out physical copies in future.

Laura White, director of communications for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, knows its value. The Firebird “is the star of public art when we write about it. We place $2 million in out-of-market ads to get brand recognition, and it has become a signature for us in the ‘Charlotte’s Got a Lot’ marketing efforts. It has graced the cover of many publications, including our official visitors guide.”

White likens it to the Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park: “an eye-catching fixture people are drawn to, a magnet people want to see themselves with. It’s almost like a gateway (to uptown).”

Yet there’s a crucial difference: The bulky Bean, delightful as its is, overwhelms a viewer and makes him feel small. I can walk between the pillars of the arch, but she’s scaled more to my size.

“The Firebird” seems so aptly placed that it’s hard to remember she spent her first 18 years on the road or in warehouses, in venues from Paris to Chicago.

You can see photos of her travels in “The Firebird: Celebrating Five Years in Charlotte,” a fourth-floor exhibit devoted to the bird and her sculptor that runs through Feb. 18. There you can decorate a wall-sized version with geometric shapes; the day I went, she had a Groucho Marx mustache and vampire fangs.

She’s a she, right?

The first time Boyer saw the real thing, she was in two pieces in crates in a garage, “like the evidence of a failed magician’s act.” He spotted it for a winner right away: “There’s a link between Charlotte rediscovering itself as it pulled out of the recession and the phoenix being reborn, welcoming you with extended wings.”

Is that why we love her? (And, to ask another question, why do we call “The Firebird” “her”? The gender isn’t specified.) I spent an hour stopping people and got answers like this:

German tourist Brigitte Raab-Lucke: “I don’t know what it is, but it’s astonishing – very welcoming. She’s shining in front of this red building, and that matches the shining of the skyscrapers.”

Charlotte’s Maxine McCoy: “I’m passionate about Niki de Saint Phalle. I always bring everyone from out of town to see this, and to see the Mint and the Bechtler.”

Fayetteville’s Bo Thorp, Maxine’s guest: “It’s an iconic piece of art you can’t find anywhere else. And (said a bit shyly) I like to see myself reflected in the mirrors!”

Florida’s Martha Scott: “I’m visiting from Key West, which has lots of cool public sculpture: naked nymphs, realistic workers sitting on benches. But this is so eye-catching: You have to walk up to see what it is.”

Columbia’s John Velders: “I’m a fan of the phoenix, so this symbol interests me. The piece stands out from everything around it; at night, it’s really beautiful.”

Irresistible to all

My own pleasure comes from discovering something new each time I take the effort to study it. I walked past half a dozen times before realizing the sun rises on its chest and sets on its back. I didn’t notice until last week that a brick on the ground identifies her. I, too, sometimes smile at my fragmented face in the mirrors.

From his fourth-floor office, Boyer sees people flock to it, from giggling fourth-graders to a gaggle of bridesmaids. This is his favorite story:

“A guy with a long beard and black leather jacket rode by on an enormous hog. He passed it, swung around, came back and parked his gleaming motorcycle under the Firebird. Then he snapped a picture of the love of his life with his phone.”

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