New audio tour offers insight into outdoor art

New audio tour offers insight into outdoor art

The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Diana Marder

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Martha Erlebacher recalls the feedback her husband, sculptor Walter Erlebacher, heard in 1976 when his work Jesus Breaking Bread was unveiled outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

The piece looked all wrong, some people complained, because “everybody knows Jesus had a beard.”

Museum Without Walls voices for "Jesus Breaking Bread" from left to right: Monsignor Jonathan Miller, Sister Mary Scullion, Martha Erlebacher.
Museum Without Walls voices for “Jesus Breaking Bread” from left to right: Monsignor Jonathan Miller, Sister Mary Scullion, Martha Erlebacher. Photo Albert Yee © 2010 for the Association for Public Art

Shroud of Turin believers aside, how anybody, let alone “everybody,” could have imagined being correct about the beard is a mystery, says Martha Erlebacher, a painter in her own right, speaking on behalf of her husband, who died in 1991.

Her recorded comments on Jesus Breaking Bread, and the voices of 100 other artists and historians revealing the untold histories of outdoor art along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelly Drive, are part of a free audio tour launched Thursday.

A project of the Fairmount Park Art Association, the Museum Without Walls audio tour tells the stories behind 51 works of public art in a series of 35 stops. The project has some extremely cool technical features, but it also can be accessed by anyone capable of dialing a phone, at 215-399-9000.

Philadelphia has more outdoor sculpture than any other city in the United States, says Penny Balkin Bach, the art association’s executive director. Yet even longtime residents can find something new on these three-minute audio segments.

Swann Memorial Fountain by Alexander Stirling Calder with City Hall in the background
“Swann Memorial Fountain” by Alexander Stirling Calder with Alexander Milne Calder’s “William Penn” in the background. Photo Gregory Benson © 2007 for the Association for Public Art

Three generations of Calders are featured: The Shakespeare Memorial and Swann Memorial Fountain, both on Logan Square, are by Alexander Stirling Calder; Three Discs, One Lacking, is a 1968 work by his son, Alexander Calder. And if you look through the frame of the Lacking disc, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, by the artist’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, comes into view.

Some artwork on the tour offers familiar images (Randolph Rogers’ Abraham Lincoln, for example, and Frederic Remington’s Cowboy).

Others are on opposite ends of what many experts might consider a continuum of great works. (The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, vs. Rocky, by Thomas Schomberg).

And even potentially ho-hum stops become fascinating in light of the information offered.

Take, for example, the James A. Garfield Monument, created in 1895 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and located on Kelly Drive south of the Girard Avenue Bridge.

The 20th president of the United States, Garfield is perhaps best remembered for his death. He was shot July 2, 1881, in the waiting room of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad depot in Washington, and died of blood poisoning 10 days later.

But the local monument is more than an homage to Garfield. His bust is on the top of a 20-foot granite pedestal. So what’s most visible at eye level is a cast bronze female figure of the Republic, created by the artist to represent the nation that was harmed by the assassination. On the audio, Nancy Tomes, the author of The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life, explains why in this case the monument is more significant than the man. And Frank Bender, a Philadelphia artist and the leading forensic sculptor in the country, tells us Saint-Gaudens created his bust of Garfield by working from a death mask – made by pouring plaster on the face of the deceased. (“Applying grease [to] the beard and eyebrows first,” Bender tells us.)

Perhaps the most overlooked piece of art highlighted on the tour is a string of words on a 1,200-foot retaining wall on the Schuylkill’s east bank. Sleeping Woman, a poem by Stephen Berg, was painted in multiple coats of polyurethane by artist Tom Chimes in 1991. The individual letters are fading now, but that’s intended. When sections of the wall collapsed during a flood, Berg and Chimes insisted the lost sections of the poem not be replaced because the piece was meant to reflect the natural changes in life. The effect is haunting.

Related Artworks


Jesus Breaking Bread


by Walter Erlebacher (1933 - 1991)

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Logan Square, 18th and Race Streets

Commissioned for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1976, Walter Erlebacher’s sculpture presents a figure of Jesus holding two pieces of broken bread.


Shakespeare Memorial


by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870 - 1945)

Logan Square, Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 19th and 20th Streets

Alexander Stirling Calder’s monument to William Shakespeare, which depicts two figures representing Comedy and Tragedy.


Swann Memorial Fountain


by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870 - 1945)

Logan Square, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 19th Street

Three bronze Native Americans that represent Philadelphia’s three main waterways: the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, and Wissahickon Creek.


Three Discs, One Lacking


by Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898 - 1976)

Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 16th and 17th Streets

Edmund Bacon, Director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, purchased this iron alloy painted sculpture for the City in 1968 with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.


Abraham Lincoln


by Randolph Rogers (1825 - 1892)

Kelly and Sedgely Drives

Philadelphia was one of the first cities in the nation to erect a monument to Lincoln after he was assassinated.




by Frederic Remington (1861 - 1909)

Kelly Drive north of Girard Avenue Bridge

Intrigued by the interaction of the cowboy and his horse, Frederic Remington found inspiration in the roughriders of the American West.


The Thinker

(1902-04, cast 1919)

by Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917)

Rodin Museum entrance and walk, Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 21st and 22nd Streets

Philadelphia’s version of this iconic artwork is a cast of the 1902–1904 sculpture. It was installed for the opening of the Rodin Museum in 1929, in front of a façade that replicates the one at Meudon where artist Auguste Rodin’s grave is located.


James A. Garfield Monument


by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 - 1907)

Kelly Drive, south of Girard Avenue Bridge; across from Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial

Following the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) established a fund to create a fitting memorial.


Sleeping Woman


by Stephen Berg (1934 - 2014), Tom Chimes (1921 - 2009)

Kelly Drive on the Schuylkill River retaining wall between "Cowboy" and "Playing Angels," Fairmount Park

Poet Stephen Berg and visual artist Tom Chimes describe Sleeping Woman as a “choral voice rising out of the site.” The collaborative work was created specifically for its location along the Schuylkill River.

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