Bronze memorial vandalized
September 16, 2011
By LISA RIZZO
A San Luis Obispo city-owned bronze sculpture, sentimental to the Chinese community, is damaged after being vandalized several times within the last six months.
Two bronze parts of the Chinese Iron Road Pioneers statue, which sits in San Luis Obispo’s Historic Railroad District and centers a roundabout where Railroad Avenue and Osos Street intersect, were broken off and stolen and one of the large figures was pushed partially over.
The public art piece, cast in solid bronze by renowned artist Elizabeth MacQueen, is of two larger than life Chinese men working on a section of railroad.
At its dedication in 2003, the memorial was one of the first in the nation to commemorate the tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who made the construction of the nation’s railroad possible. In the 1880s, the pioneers were brought to the Central Coast to help build the “iron road” and open up commerce in San Luis Obispo.
The Central Coast Chinese Association says the “sculpture serves as an enduring monument of the blood, the sweat, and the often shed tears of our ancestors.” Association Vice President of Public Relations Paul Kwong expressed his disappointment with the news.
About three weeks ago, one of the bronze workers succumbed to an “unknown” pressure and became detached from its base. It’s now leaning forward. The City of San Luis Obispo had the statue temporarily soldered for safety.
Neighboring businesses tell CalCoastNews that while closing their restaurants late at night they have observed people climbing and horsing around the statue.
The San Luis Obispo Public Works Department, which oversees city public art, has not filed a police report, believing the vandals did not mean harm; rather it was a case of “nighttime activities and bad ideas combined.”
“Hopefully people did not mean to intentionally do something,” said Public Art Manager Shannon Bates.
“I believe people don’t realize how fragile they [the sculptures] can be, especially bronze,” she said. “It’s supposed to be viewed and not interacted with.”
A crane will need to be brought in to lift the estimated 800-pound statue and facilitate the “intensive repairs,” Public Works says.
This latest damage comes shy of the completion of repairs from the last incident of vandalism which happened in the spring. Public works officials said this time it appears surely intentional.
The long bronze pony-tail braids of hair were torn off both Chinese pioneers and stolen. Artist MacQueen had to return to San Luis Obispo in April to recast the pieces. The bronze braids are expected to be reattached in the coming months.
In 2002, the statue was valued at $110,000, according to Public Works. The price of bronze has since increased. Repairs will cost $2,000 for the braids alone.
The damage to the Chinese Iron Road Pioneers statue is the worst assault to the town’s public art since the “Hey, Diddle-Diddle” sculpture was stolen from downtown San Luis Obispo about a decade ago, according to Public Works.
That bronze sculpture featuring a cat and a violin was never found and the mystery never solved. The piece was recast and replaced to its Marsh Street location in 2003.
The city is hoping a new program will help nourish an appreciation and respect for public art. It has partnered with ARTS Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, a non-profit which is developing a plan in cooperation with Cal Poly fraternities to watch over the sculptures.
Once the program is underway, fraternity members will divide into groups and each select a local public art piece to clean, protect, and monitor for damage throughout the year, said Arts Council Art in Public Places Committee Chair Ann Ream.
ARTS Obispo Program Director Jenna Hartzell says education is essential to protecting public art work. “We want to keep them lasting longer for the benefit of the community.”