Mark Washburn

‘Wind Sculpture’ on West Trade Street gets makeover

“Wind Sculpture” on West Trade Street uptown shows off its fabrics, which were replaced Tuesday.
“Wind Sculpture” on West Trade Street uptown shows off its fabrics, which were replaced Tuesday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Public art should tell a story, transport you somewhere you may not expect to go and enliven the space it occupies.

And be mocked.

People just love to trash public art. But “Wind Sculpture” in front of the federal courthouse uptown? No complaints.

For nearly 30 years, the whirligigs at West Trade and Mint streets have been twisting in the wind with nary a discouraging word.

“This piece is one of those that people love,” said Robert Bush, president of the Arts & Science Council, which administers the city’s public artworks. “It’s playful. It’s not trying to say anything more than this is an interesting place.”

It’s not trying to say anything, but it turns out “Wind Sculpture” is full of secrets, past and future.

Street needed a boost

Hard to believe, but in 1985, the federal building represented the edge of uptown. Uphill toward Tryon Street was the business district; downhill was the creepy quarter.

Bank executives Hugh McColl and Dennis Rash were leading revitalization. They asked artist Jack Pentes to come up with a gateway sculpture to jazz things up.

“He wanted to put in something that had a lot of energy and color,” said Dorne Pentes, son of Jack, who died in February. “It was intended to be a happy welcoming presence. He wanted it to be a ‘ta-da!’”

It went up in 1986 and the charitable arts group Queen’s Table paid $100,000 for it, then donated it to the city. So it already had one charm – it came free.

Time for a facelift

“Wind Sculpture” is getting some TLC this month. On Tuesday, it got a new spring wardrobe, fresh fabric that city workers put on the spinning discs to replace faded cloth installed five years ago.

It’s still a bargain, by the way. Creative agency Wray Ward did the designs for free, and Glen Raven Inc. donated the Sunbrella fabric. ASC paid $846 for a city crew to install the fabric.

There will be a ceremony to honor “Wind Sculpture” at 10 a.m. on April 24 as part of International Sculpture Day. Maybe someone will tell its success story.

Busily, it did its job

See, 29 years ago “Wind Sculpture” was installed to help jump-start the neighborhood. With every gust, the windmills bent to work. And somehow, motion followed on the street.

Once on the fringe of uptown, “Wind Sculpture” now occupies a spot in the middle of a bustling corridor rattling with the sounds of construction.

“Wind Sculpture” still tells a story, as good public art should, only it’s a story that no one imagined back when it started work. It tells a story of vision and faith and growth and prosperity that came to a rundown area.

Few know it, but plans are already underway to move “Wind Sculpture.” When the planned streetcar comes through in a few years, the art piece will yield to the tracks and move west on Trade Street, probably opposite Johnson & Wales University.

There – enlivening its space and transporting onlookers with simple whimsy – it will go back to work, whirling away and whispering “ta-da!” on uptown’s new frontier.

Of course it’s popular. This is a business town, and “Wind Sculpture” never wastes a breath.

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

Back in 1985

Here’s how the Observer told the story Sept. 27, 1985, when the City Council approved “Wind Sculpture.”

Wind sculptures for Charlotte: Artist wants to capture excitement of downtown

By RICHARD MASCHAL

Visual Arts Writer

Last winter, when designer Jack Pentes talked with representatives of the Queen’s Table about a public art project, several things became clear. They wanted their first project to be downtown, to be other than a conventional public sculpture and to be highly visible.

“Most people who come in here expect you to pull a solution out of a hat,” Pentes, president of Pentes Design Inc., said Wednesday. Rather than do a bit of magic, Pentes asked committee members Sally Robinson, C.D. “Dick” Spangler Jr. and Meredith Spangler, his wife, to think about downtowns. Discussions turned to the “things you can count on being downtown,” and Pentes recalled Columbus, Ga., where he grew up. Downtown had a big clock, a World War I cannon, Christmas decorations, bunting on buildings to mark the seasons or occasions and banners strung across streets to announce events.

That sense of color, movement, excitement and of place – of DOWNTOWN! – is what Pentes hopes to capture in his “wind sculptures,” a concept presented to the city council Monday and given its approval.

The basics are set, but several parts of the $100,000 project need refining. Pentes has designed a pole or standard to resemble the Transit Mall lamp standards. On top will be several large disk-shaped frames holding colored fabric. The pole and disks will be about 30 feet high, almost as tall as the larger street-lamp standards. Suspended beneath the disks will be vertical bands of fabric. While not loose to flap in the wind, the fabric will bow and billow, describing the breeze and riffling audibly. The fabric will change each season, different colors and different designs.

The design was developed in discussions with the Central Charlotte Association, which has agreed to change the fabric each season; city officials, elected and staff, and William H. Williamson III, chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts Commission, which oversees public art projects. Pentes has seen such sculptures in Boston and San Francisco. “They made the area they were in exciting,” he said.

Five of them will stand, heralding downtown: two at West Trade and Church streets, two at East Trade and College streets and one at the southwest corner of The Square, Trade and Tryon.

Pentes said engineering tests for wind stress may change the number of disks and their size. And he has yet to determine the color and configuration of the fabric. The judgment of such a site-specific design must wait until it is installed. However, one thing can be said.

The project threatens to clutter an already full downtown streetscape, a problem Pentes said he is well aware of. Within a block of the Square are colored and textured sidewalks, flag poles, bollards, two large abstract metal sculptures, bus shelters, kiosks, benches and planters with trees. This is not an environment needing more. “Downtown is very well-furnished,” said Pentes.

Early ideas for the project called for putting the sculptures on Tryon and Trade streets. But Pentes found the available sites were taken, and Tryon Street crowded. He considered grouping sculptures on West Trade Street, a plan city officials liked but committee members didn’t. Apparently, they felt that would be too far from the action.

Pentes said putting the pairs of sculptures on Trade Street off the Square removes them from most of the street furniture. One was located in the space cleared for a park at Trade and Tryon at the request of city staffers.

Pentes may be right. The sculptures may fit and help to enliven downtown. If Charlotte’s past reaction to public art is any guide, they at least will be controversial. Pentes knows that. So do Queen’s Table committee members.

“We’ve got to expect some of that,” said Sally Robinson, committee chairman. “I hope there will be more yeas than nays.”

  Comments