The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Diana Marder
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.”
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.
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.
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.