Street People

The People Project exposes the dysfunctions of the region

Jessie Vonk answers the door to the studio looking like a red flame. She is at least three distinct shades of red. Her hair radiates a glorious orange, her form-fitting work dress -- revealing what is still a dancer's body -- is a soft burgundy, and her face blushes like that of a child who has exerted herself in the summer sun. Vonk is exasperated, near the end of her rope. Although she is a sculptor -- she has worked in bronze and made the bust of the late Leon Strauss that sits across the street from the Fox Theatre -- these materials she's working with aren't doing what she needs them to do. She has spent hours fixing a metal girdle to the anatomic base figure with screws and cutting Styrofoam in the shapes of musical instruments for this piece, to be called "Symphony Musician Going to Work." But the Sheetrock she's been using to add body to the underbody won't dry.

People Project head Porter Arneill and artist Jane Saunders -- it's Saunders' studio, and she's the one who invited us over ("Jessie Vonk is working in my studio! Do you want to come see her?") -- begin offering solutions: Sheetrock is the wrong material. She needs plaster of Paris ("Write that down, please," Vonk says as her anxiety diminishes) and gauze. Saunders starts in on her theme -- which can be found in her people figure "A Heart of Gold" -- that this interaction is what the People Project is all about: sharing. Arneill can hardly contain himself: "It's so good you're seeing this. How many people know what it takes to make art? We get so caught up in the product and forget the process."

Who could not be caught up in the vibrancy of Jessie Vonk? (It's no surprise when, a few days later, a photo of the wife of the St. Louis Symphony maestro shows up in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) "Who couldn't think this is such a wonderful thing?" begs Saunders.

"Three Sheets to the Wind," as displayed at the People Project Gala
"Three Sheets to the Wind," as displayed at the People Project Gala

With a budget of more than $1 million and four full-time staffers working solely on the People Project at the Regional Arts Commission (an agency whose resources are overburdened as it is), the hope is that everyone in the region will see how wonderful this thing is. The cows were wonderful in Chicago. The pigs were wonderful in Cincinnati. The painted ponies were wonderful in New Mexico. The epidemic of sculpted animal figures in urban landscapes has infected more than 40 North American cities. This summer, Chicago -- which spread the virus, by way of Zurich -- hosts select critters from all those cities in a display near the Lincoln Park Zoo. Tim Liddy's "Birdy" is St. Louis' representative, probably because the title alone may keep visitors from scratching their heads and wondering, "What's with St. Louis? The best they could come up with was people?"

In Cincinnati, which held the Big Pig Gig last summer, Tamara Harkavy says the choice of pigs was "a no-brainer." With hog slaughter a part of the Queen City's heritage, placing lovable, fanciful piggies in the public thoroughfare triumphed as an urban makeover. The stench of pigs, the squealing, the butchery -- all this was sanitized from Cincinnati's history with the presence of pigs dressed as ballerinas in Fountain Square. The Big Pig Gig attracted more than 400 sponsors, who paid as much as $10,000 per pig. "Once the floodgates were open, it was a mad rush," says Harkavy. When the porcine sculptures were auctioned, $860,000 was raised, with the money going to charities and to Harkavy's organization, ArtWorks.

With just three weeks to go before the People Project's people take to the streets, only 175 have found sponsors (at $5,000 per), far fewer than the 400 or so the organizers had hoped for. Apparently it's easier to lead pigs to slaughter than funders to the People Project. It hasn't been for lack of trying. Arneill and Audrey Hutti have been schlepping the figures to Rotary and Kiwanis Club luncheons, to RCGA events and to the annual Alton business dinner. A sculpture of Howard Cosell got prime-time play during a Monday Night Football game at the Trans World Dome. Last Saturday night, a $100 per-person gala was held on the 10th floor of the City Museum complex, with figures on display, some of them without sponsors (hint, hint).

Arneill remains implacably earnest through it all -- "People are receptive, curious. This is different" -- and expects the reluctant Babbitts to take the bait once the figures are out there, begetting perhaps 100 more, as happened with Toronto's urban moose: "Our goal is to bring the region together, support and promote the arts, and have fun."

The sober reality of the People Project is how it exposes the dysfunctions of the region more than it binds the area together. People, unlike pigs or moose or cows or redfish, have no specific claim on St. Louis' identity (other than there are a lot fewer of them here in the city than there used to be). The organizers of the People Project had to stretch for the universal when public solicitations for a local symbol failed to catch a no-brainer pig. The region lacks a pedestrian center (or any sort of center), so the figures will be spread out among 12 counties and throughout St. Louis, as isolated as the real people of the region really are. Ald. Thomas Bauer (D-24th), whose ward encompasses Dogtown, sent a resolution to RAC telling them to keep the people out, that they'd have dogs in Dogtown (Arneill, to his credit, has given advice to the Dog Project coordinator, Joe Staebell, anyway). The night of the People Project Gala, those paying 5 bucks to attend Venus Envy at the Lemp Brewery complex stood out like the grungy opposite of the gala's designer dress-ups and exhibited not the faintest effects of the People Project buzz.

The truth is, to paraphrase the title of a collection of William Kittredge short stories, we are not all in this together.

The morning of the People Project Gala, the Metro Theatre Company presented its new play, More Stuff, to a half-filled auditorium of giddy children and adults at the Missouri Historical Society. The play -- as it was created by the performing ensemble -- is, as some of the best plays are, about nothing much, which means it's about what's most vital to living. A janitor's chores are interrupted by a troupe of nonverbal sprites, dressed in primary colors, who invite him to play. That play involves a variety of props -- ladders, empty water containers, balls, mallets, an accordion, a penny whistle, a kazoo, a red bicycle (whole and in parts) -- with the characters discovering imaginative ways to make delightful use of them. For an hour, the audience was captivated and entertained, watching precisely what fun is.

Metro has gained its international reputation for creating children's theater that never talks down to its audience. Whatever morals are contained in the company's work are suggested or implied -- nobody is going to come out and say, "You see, boys and girls, what can happen if you cooperate with others and are open to possibilities?" That's the kind of dreck Metro never goes near. They treat children as people with minds that wonder and are up for challenge. Although the term "taking risks" has become a cliché in relation to the arts, Metro is a true risk-taking enterprise. The integrity is palpable in everything the company does.

Metro strives for what is best in itself as a group of artists and what is best in its audiences. The sad lesson of the People Project is that, from the very beginning, it has approached the most common of denominators (people), dumbed down to the dumbest levels (words such as "artist" and "sculpture" were avoided in promotional material, replaced by "creative agent" and "people figure" so as not to sound elitist), as if that's what it takes to bind together a region, as if that's what fun is. Arneill admits that he asks himself what the value of these works are as art, a question that isn't so hard to answer if you aren't involved with the process and judge the product from a streetwise distance.

The best art -- and Metro knows this -- always, always subverts the status quo and takes its inspiration from fierce gods. Artists who extend offerings to the banal desires of the Chamber of Commerce risk the atrophy that comes with ease.

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