A struggle between patron and artist creates panic in Turtle Park

Dedicated in 1996, Turtle Park stands out as one of the most popular works of public sculpture, and uses of public space, in St. Louis. Artist Bob Cassilly and architect Richard Claybour took what was little more than unused green space and transformed it into a place where families meet, where kids play, where people walk, sit, think and admire those grand sculptures. Turtle Park has become a civic marker, situated across Highway 40 from the zoo, a place where those traveling through the city or making their day-to-day commute can observe something unique -- the large turtles in different states of action and inaction, objects made of dark-gray concrete melded with the mounds of earth.

A couple of weeks ago, those who regularly pass by the park noticed that something had changed -- weren't the turtles now faintly orange? -- and then drove on, thinking nothing more about it. But when Cassilly saw the new autumn shade on the turtles for the first time, en route to his kids' soccer game, he says, "I almost had an accident."

What he found on closer examination is, to him, an assault on his artistic vision. Forest Park director Annabeth Calkins gave the OK for the turtles to be coated with a cement-and-acrylic solution "to preserve the turtles and have a safe place for children to play," she says, and she did it without consulting Cassilly.

Despite claims to the contrary, Turtle Park has been a safe place to play for four years.
Jay Fram
Despite claims to the contrary, Turtle Park has been a safe place to play for four years.

The turtles and serpents of Turtle Park have been turned from gray to reddish brown. The coating has been applied unevenly -- thin in some places, gloppy or spattered in others. Subtle detailing has been lost -- the creatures' eyes no longer have the distinct line quality of before; the small fissures in each shell are less defined. The surface is coarse as sandpaper in some places, smooth in others. Cassilly intended a natural darkening and staining of the gray concrete, produced through human contact, so that the evolution of these materials would continue through time. That evolution has stopped.

"The essence here is public sensibility. There isn't any," says the outraged artist. Although his lawyer has advised him not to do anything rash, Cassilly is on a rampage. Who would expect otherwise of Cassilly, the frenetic mind behind the City Museum, who once offered Mayor Clarence Harmon a check for $250,000 to save the Arena, who follows his imagination like a cowboy riding a wild mustang? "Annabeth is completely responsible for this," he says. "All you have to do is start claiming safety, and all bets are off. They had a problem with the stone color because it was aging. It's a natural material. If this new stuff is so great, why don't they cover City Hall with it?

"It's so demoralizing. It's like visual nihilism. Nothing makes a difference. Remember when they had those advertisements for Shake 'n Bake? "You can have chicken that tastes just like takeout.' Now they've done the same thing with these turtles. You used to have the real thing. Now you can have the fake shit."

By Monday morning, the day before Halloween and two days after Cassilly's discovery, a person, or persons, has expressed more outrage. The turtles and serpents that make up Turtle Park have been spray-painted with phrases conveying their imagined anguish: "WE HAVE BEEN SLIMED," cries the snake. "HELP I CAN'T BREATH," moans the turtle, perhaps too stressed to spell correctly.

Cassilly drives up in a blue Miata, raring to produce a media frenzy. "Nobody even noticed this," he says contemptuously, "until some of my benefactors spray-painted it." Does this mean he knows who did it? A sly grin crosses his face. No, he says -- he doesn't know, but he admits he takes pleasure in "the vandals who vandalized the vandalism.

"The things should be bulldozed," says Cassilly. He was given no notice of this action, he claims. If he had, he says, "I would have chained myself to them."

Later the same day, Sonya "Sunny" Glassberg calls. Glassberg commissioned Turtle Park, paid more than $200,000 for its creation and then donated it to the city of St. Louis. Those who know her generally use words such as "well meaning," "sweet" and "good-hearted" to describe her. She says, "I know there are other people who are philanthropists, but I don't know that they give with as much heart as I do." She's been a big donor for projects in Forest Park, Greensfelder Park and the zoo. She's been a supporter of Cassilly's City Museum: "I just gave him a six-figure gift so the inner-city kids could get in free," she says. At 82 years of age, Glassberg says, "My joy in living, really and truly, is to give back to St. Louis what St. Louis has meant to me."

She's had an ugly confrontation with Cassilly this day. She heard a radio report about the graffiti and came down to investigate. She found Cassilly with reporters surrounding him, Glassberg says, "and he was wild. He really needs something to calm him down." She describes her confrontation: "He said, "Look what you've done to my turtles!' He's furious at Forest Park, and I said, "Don't be angry at Forest Park. It's my fault. I knew they had to be taken care of, and nobody was taking care of them. You wouldn't even come back to look at them.' And I said, "Furthermore, Bob, these are not your turtles, and they're not my turtles. I paid you top price. You never even gave me a bid. When you needed an extra $50,000 for concrete, I'd come over with a check. And I was more than generous about everything. They're not your turtles. They don't have your name on them. And they're not my turtles. They belong to the city of St. Louis and the children from everywhere.' And I said, "I want you to remember that.'

Next Page »