Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - April 9, 2010

Man on the street

Lifelike bronze sculptures interact with downtown visitors

by Emily West

Artist Seward Johnson is said to have created his bronze sculptures to be approachable. His work, featured in a temporary outdoor exhibit throughout downtown, features everything from a woman with groceries to a brother and sister sharing an ice cream cone. His man-on-the-street style is causing a stir around town, as the pieces are so true to form that you may bump into one, say excuse me and continue down Main Street.

Since first installing the pieces last week, passersby have been interacting with the sculptures. Julie Finegan, art gallery coordinator for the city of Pleasanton, said one woman pulled up in front of Comerica Bank, calling out to the window washer for directions. The only problem? The washer with a startling grin is hundreds of pounds of bronze and will be peering into the bank's window until he and the others are removed June 30.

It's not surprising that the art would be mistaken, as many details need to be touched to be believed. Johnson has managed to make bronze look like a cable knit sweater and flowing hair. One in front of the Museum On Main is actually painted to look like the two-dimensional "American Gothic" painting by Grant Wood.

Finegan said bringing approachable art was one of the objectives for the Civic Arts Commission. The group has had Johnson's art in mind ever since commission president Howard Seebach saw it while visiting family in Kansas in 2005.

Johnson's collection of art, along with many others, is brought to cities around the world through The Sculpture Foundation. The 11 pieces selected to be shown in Pleasanton are sprinkled down Main Street, from the Veteran's Memorial Building to the Main Street Green Park. Many correlate with their locations, such as a runner in front of Fleet Feet and the man with a dog in front of Murphy's Paw.

These pieces, Finegan said, are for both the art lover and amateur.

"People tend to appreciate the fact they can see what it is and know exactly what it is," she said. "There are also a lot of us out there that like to see something left to the imagination. This is a cool way to start; something to talk about and interact with."

Claudia Hess, civic arts commissioner for the past four years, said the plan was to get people to respond.

"The reactions I have heard have been everything from 'creepy' to 'hey that's fun,'" she said. "Anytime you can get a reaction, that's good."

Hess said she likes the interactions with the sculptures -- even when it means teenagers taking kissy pictures with one or seeing restaurant fliers sticking in the hand of another. That interaction, she said, is part of Johnson's intent.

Art, Hess said, is what makes our society innovative and gets people engaged.

"Art is a nice counterbalance to the very 'yes or no' or 'this is the only way,'" she said. "It's very subjective. You're allowed to think it's creepy."

Another benefit of art, Hess said, was studying something to see the story behind it.

"Someone pointed out the irregularly hemmed pants (on the statue of the man reading a newspaper)," she said. "You start to think, 'he looks well-to-do, why are they self-hemmed? Is he from the depression?' It really gets the story going."

The timing of the exhibit would allow for schools to take field trips to the exhibit and integrate it with curriculum. They will also be around for two of the First Wednesday Street Parties and some concerts in the park.

To bring even more interaction to the exhibit, the Museum On Main will host guided tours and a scavenger hunt. Tours are scheduled at 1 p.m. April 17, May 15 and June 19. For more information on these events, call 462-2766.

The Civic Arts Commission meets at 7 p.m. the first Monday monthly in the City Council conference room at 200 Old Bernal Ave.

To learn more about Johnson's art, visit www.sewardjohnson.com, or about the Sculpture Foundation, visit www.thesculpturefoundation.com.

Sculpture exhibit locations

* Gay 90s Pizza & Pasta, 288 Main St.

* Fleet Feet Sports, 310 Main St.

* Murphy's Paw, 410 Main St.

* Meadowlark Dairy, 57 W. Neal St.

* Comerica Bank, 600 Main St.

* Museum On Main, 603 Main St.

* The Wine Steward, 641 Main St.

* Sincerely Yours Cards and Gifts, 711 Main St.

* Little Valley Winery, 739 Main St.

* The Rose Hotel, 807 Main St.

* Main Street Green Park, 890 Main St.

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