SouthfieldAugust 22, 2012
City officials consider art installation on Eight Mile
By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer
SOUTHFIELD — For Michigan artist David Barr, it’s more than a simple granite obelisk filling a 10-by-10 foot space. It’s history. It’s art. It’s lauding the community.
The border of obelisks he’s on a mission to erect in various cities along Eight Mile don’t divide, they bring people together, he said.
Barr told council members during the Aug. 13 meeting about his research of the history of obelisks, which early surveyors used to mark significant points and set landscapes. The importance of baselines — sometimes a visible divide, other times an imaginary marker of Michigan’s historical land exchanges and new territories — fascinates him.
“I grew up always living within a mile of Eight Mile,” explained the teacher, writer and artist responsible for the “Transcending” piece in Detroit’s Hart Plaza. “I never knew what ‘Baseline’ meant, why it’s sometimes referred to as Baseline (Road), why other times it’s Eight Mile,” he said. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, Eight Mile, or M-102, “was the original east-west base line used to create the original state townships,” and it was sometimes called Baseline Road.
“All of our laws come off of this baseline, everything; where our garage is placed is somehow relative to that baseline, and yet we don’t know it or understand it.”
He said this “invisible history” interested him as an artist.
“How do you make that something everyone can relate to, how can you intrigue people into the story and tell it in a way that has meaning?”
For his project, “Coasting the Baseline,” Barr has constructed monuments on Eight Mile in Farmington Hills, Northville and Novi so far, and is looking at Southfield now as he creates a series of obelisks along Michigan’s baseline from shore to shore.
“My dream has been that this project goes on long after me and continues to march across the state until we have something that is a kind of magnet that pulls tourists and other people along and will make it a mission to go to every one of these obelisks, just as some people go to every lighthouse and every national park.”
For the project the city would have to raise enough funds for the materials and foundation, which Barr estimates at $12,000.
City Planner Terry Croad said the proposed site of Eight Mile and Rutford Drive, a city-owned property, could serve as a “gateway” into the Downtown Development District of Southfield, as well as be part of a potentially historical project that would tie into Michigan’s roots and Southfield’s character.
Constructing each obelisk includes community members — such as teachers, historians, artists and students from the city — who can collaborate to add in specific pieces of Southfield’s historical, social and economic significance. Barr said he extends the project into the community and captures each city’s “story” by engraving their ideas.
“I really want it to be an interactive project,” said Barr, who has artwork installed at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, Bishop Airport in Flint and in front of Chrysler’s European headquarters in Brussels. He added that he’s done projects like this internationally, in Africa, Greenland and Russia.
“When I first come, they usually think I’m nuts, and by the time I leave, we usually have a lot of friends.”
Several council members praised the idea and opportunity for Southfield to be involved.
“(Barr has) done some marvelous stuff. I feel honored that he’d want to do something in Southfield, personally,” Councilman Ken Siver said. “I think our community is begging for more public art. … Eight Mile covers six miles of the city. It’s something we are. It’s who we are.”
Councilman Don Fracassi also expressed his support, and said it has “a lot of merit.”
Concerns were raised by Council President Pro Tem Sidney Lantz, however, who cautioned Barr that the $12,000 for the project would be difficult to raise. Lantz suggested that Barr raise the funds first to pay for the project because “the city is not going to do it.”
Lantz also reminded council of the time they shot down his monument proposal for a tribute to the Fire Department, leading to it being installed in a location “where it’s lost, no one knows it’s there, no one sees it, nobody advertises it.”
“And here, you’re all gung ho for an obelisk like this,” Lantz said. “I’m not against this. I’m against decisions which are not fair. I don’t like it personally, but I’ll go with it.”
He also added, “It won’t stay under $12,000. It’s going to reach $50,000 before it’s over with.”
Croad said they want the opportunity to explore the project, and if no funds can be raised, there will be “no harm” done.
Ultimately, because there were too many variables in how much the cost would add up to and who exactly would drive the effort under Barr’s guidance, council unanimously approved the matter being brought before them at a later date, with more detail.
Fracassi, Siver and Councilman Jeremy Moss volunteered to work on a more thorough proposal.
“We’ll get this thing going,” Fracassi said, “We just need to take some initiative.”
If the project does go through, Croad will help identify key stakeholders in fundraising and contributing to the project’s engravings. The project would take nine-12 months to complete, and an unveiling of the monument would happen with a community-wide ceremony.
That one-acre area could be used for further development of a formal plaza and still will not hinder economic development there, Croad said.
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