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Big gig on Liberty Avenue

Odd musical trio in new sculpture

Thursday, June 19, 2003

They're supposed to be a secret until a week from tomorrow, but have you ever tried to keep three 15-foot musicians a secret on Liberty Avenue?

Sculptor James Simon, left, and John Fleenor apply a final coat to Simon's "Liberty Avenue Musicians" sculpture in the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Simon and Fleenor have been working on the trio of 15-foot concrete statues for more than a year. Click photo for larger image. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

James Simon and John Fleenor have spent the past month hauling hollow, 500-pound concrete pieces Downtown in a pickup truck, hoisting them into place, and finally pouring the buckets of concrete that will make sure this band doesn't quickly leave its stage. They labored 15 months in Simon's Uptown studio before that, Fleenor having relocated from Oregon to help out.

"We did everything with the capability we had in our world," Simon, 48, said.

With a hand-cranked crane rented for $500 a month, they've worked through the nights to erect an exuberant, playful and unlikely trio. You don't see many accordion-trumpet-guitar combos, even fewer the size of giraffes. But this one has arisen in front of the Pittsburgh Presse Deli at 947 Liberty, and it has passers-by gawking and chewing the scene with the artists.

Simon says a cab driver who looked like bluesman Muddy Waters kept driving past one night and finally stopped. The cabbie had played blues guitar 30 years ago, and he told Simon and Fleenor they'd captured the feelings of those days.

The energy and physicality in the sculpture reminded me of the paintings of Ernie Barnes or Thomas Hart Benton, but Simon said it was his travels in Brazil, Greece and Mexico that informed this piece. The green tint echoes Mayan artifacts.

Simon's was hardly a direct path to sculpting. He hopped around the globe after graduating from Peabody High School in 1972, having learned ceramics there from the award-winning Edward Kosewicz.

Simon apprenticed with a master instrument maker in Oxford, England, about 25 years ago, and embarked on a living as a violin maker. But he also sculpted, and over the years this art that makes "you spend your whole life covered in white" took over. He moved back to Pittsburgh about five years ago, where Eve Picker became a fan of his work.

Picker has spent the past seven years buying old buildings, converting them to loft apartments and showing Pittsburgh how to rethink Downtown. She wanted to build a new three-story loft building with a restaurant on the first floor, but she needed something spectacular to cut through the city's red tape.

"I wanted a European feel with people spilling out into the street and I knew there wasn't the space to do it," Picker said.

The sidewalk is narrow on that stretch of Liberty Avenue, so, to make room for outdoor tables, she would have to set this new building back farther from the curb than its historic neighbors. Picker went to the city Art Commission and Historic Review Commission two years ago and convinced them that a sculptural gateway would add vitality to the street. She then secured the financing to buy the lot, erect her building and realize the dream.

It's amazing what 18,000 pounds of concrete can do.

Simon, who loves the multicultural music of Brazil, said he sees these musicians as neither white nor black. They're regular people. They're three musicians with one sleepy-eyed dog at their feet. He calls them simply, "The Liberty Avenue Musicians." (He and Fleenor kicked around the name "The Statues of Liberty" before kicking that notion to the curb.)

The official unveiling will be June 27. People will see Mayor Tom Murphy, various media freeloaders snagging the free grub, and even a mediated conversation on Downtown.

But until then, impromptu conversations between citizens and artists will go on as long as Fleenor and Simon continue with the finish. Pittsburghers aren't shy. As in the days of the Renaissance -- that would be the original one in Italy, not Mayor Davey Lawrence's -- artists are working among the people, and people are doing on-spot critiques.

That can be humbling, but Simon and Fleenor are enjoying it. Rare is the chance for the artist to see how his work is received. Most never find out.

"You never really know," Simon said.

"How do you know? What are you going to do? Stand by your sculpture?"

For the past month, he and Fleenor have, long into the night.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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