|Owner||Aspinwall Riverfront Park|
“Playground” is an object of public art that is, in fact, a playground. It is one of six nearly identical bronze figures created by New York sculpture Tom Otterness, installed in Riverpark, Aspinwall, in 2015. While the exact price is not revealed, it is valued at more than a million dollars.
There are, indeed, many playgrounds in Pittsburgh, and often they are huge labyrinths of plastic or wood that attract hordes of children. “Playground” is the only playground that combines play with art. Otterness refers to his sculpture as “architecture for kids” and it is a deceptively simple piece that recalls Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, reclining on his arms. Children walk or scramble up stairs that are his reclining thighs and slide down the tops of his lower legs. They climb up other ladders to a small lookout that is Tin Man’s shoulders and actually climb into his head to peer out through his eyes. Other than that there is not a great deal to do, speaking of organized play, yet, on two grey, chilly and foreboding Saturdays when I visited the site it was lively with kids zooming around, up, down and through small mazes the found and created. Why is this art-playground so successful?
I think there are three reasons. The first is scale. Otterman is quoted as saying: "[It is] sort of like Alice in Wonderland, how they [the children] feel really small when they first see it and how they feel when they find the smaller figures. It goes from being 35 feet long to something like Mount Rushmore relative to those little pieces.” The sculpture is a friendly giant; kids can play rough and tumble as they crawl on adults or large dogs. Perhaps the attraction also comes from the imaginary beings, tiny figures welded on the surface, who are like tiny pets.
Secondly, the surface of Tin Man is an alluring bronze, decidedly upscale from tin. In fact it takes an elaborate and expensive yearly wax treatment to keep it from turning green. But the result is metal that is almost creamy to the touch of a hue that speaks of machines of a different age. It is inviting and it is also very slippery.
Third the design is deceptively inviting. The legs/slides are very deep, impossible to fall out of, and fun to clamor up backwards. There are nooks and crannies around and through the Tin Man; most especially kids can crawl into his head and peer through his eyes. This is a space that is off limits to adults; it is far too small to enter. There are also benches that surround the Tin Man, and this is where parents post themselves to observe and to chat with others. “Watch me, watch me!” the kids shout out and the parents are delighted to do so. As they watch their children they observe an art piece in action; a physical object melded into a physical environment. They also engage with others, as they did with me, as I casually explained why on a grey day I was also at the park.
The sculpture is not only a spectacular, odd and expensive playground, it is also the centerpiece of a several million dollar development that transformed a trashed out ten acre lot to an inviting park that opens the community to the river. Tin Man is being joined by an amphitheater and stage for community productions, bike baths, bathroom facilities and a kayak rental. What is remarkable is that Tin Man and his evolving setting is the result of a ground-up community effort, children selling lemonade and donating their proceeds of lawn mowing as their parents organize fund raisers and prepare grant proposals. The entire project, including the removal of tons of trash, planting of shade trees for Tin Man’s comfort (and the comfort of the tiny denizens who slide down his legs in the hot summer), and the construction of auxiliary elements, cost several million dollars, nearly all raised by the community.
The Playground (as the sculpture is officially known) is located in Riverfront Park, Aspinwall, off Freeport Road, entrance across from Eastern Avenue.
Tom Otterness was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1952. He came to New York City in 1970 to study at the Arts Students League, and in 1973 took part in the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 1977 he became a member of Collaborative Projects, a pioneering community of independent artists, and took a leading role in organizing Colab’s 1980 Times Square Show, which was called “the first avant-garde art show of the ‘80s” by the Village Voice. Otterness is one of a handful of contemporary artists invited to design a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for which he devised a tumbling Humpty-Dumpty in 2005. Otterness lives and works in New York.