For artist Melanie VanHouten, the sculpture garden of painted tree stumps on the Frankfort High School lawn was a conceptual, thought-provoking piece of student artwork meant to last a decade or more.
But others considered it an eyesore, and maintenance crews struggled to mow among the 40-or-so pillars installed last April.
So Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Rich Crowe authorized a group of students to remove the art installation a few weeks ago on their own, during the night, as part of the senior prank.
Removing the sculpture garden was already part of the maintenance crew’s summer break to-do list, he said.
That decision doesn’t sit well with VanHouten, founder of Josephine Sculpture Park on Lawrenceburg Road, a public park that exhibits large-scale outdoor sculptures and community art works.
She said school district officials aren’t taking “the destruction of student art work” by another group of students as a serious offense.
“We never imagined that within one year it would be destroyed with not so much as a statement from the school,” she said in a three-page letter sent Wednesday to school officials, The State Journal and others after two meetings with Crowe didn’t resolve her concerns.
“I have never seen such disrespect in all my career as a professional artist or professor and it makes me very, very sad for the students who worked so hard to make this piece come to life.”
Sculpture designed to honor lost trees
The sculpture garden was originally installed in April 2011, a few months after school officials ordered the removal of three towering pin oaks from the school grounds after they were found to be rotting, decayed and in one case, dying.
Students spent long lunches under the trees, and gathered there after school to hang out and play games.
Art teacher Rachel Allen, who has since left FHS to work for the Kentucky Arts Council, saw an opportunity to fill the void with a public art project in their memory. Students in three of her classes designed the sculpture garden made with logs salvaged from the trees.
The students dug dozens of holes and filled them with concrete, anchoring the logs in a swirling pattern they designed themselves. They later removed some of the bark and painted the exposed wood.
The project was funded through a $1,080 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council’s Teacher-Initiated Program and a $770 “innovative grant” from the Frankfort Independent Board of Education.
The grants funded a two-week artist residency for VanHouten, who said at the time that she envisioned the sculpture park as a work in progress that students would add to each year, planting native flowers and grasses between the stumps.
Project doesn’t turn out as planned
Crowe told The State Journal Friday that he didn’t realize the sculpture garden was meant to stay in place for so long, or that students had plans to expand it. But he said knowing that detail probably wouldn’t have changed his mind.
He made the decision to remove it because of “overwhelmingly negative” comments from students, staff and the community about the sculpture’s appearance, and the difficulty with mowing.
Crowe said that when he heard a group of students wanted to dismantle the project as part of the senior prank, he gave them the go-ahead to clear the grounds a few months ahead of schedule.
“I said, ‘Say no more, just tell them to be careful, and leave the dedication (plaque),’” he said, referring to a stump that carries an inscription of the sculpture’s name and other details.
“That was my direction to the kids, and they followed that. In my opinion, this was benefiting the school because it was going to be done anyway,” he said.
“I am sorry that people are upset and hurt – those were totally unintended consequences, and if I had it to do over again, I would have said something shortly afterward about what had occurred.”
In retrospect, Crowe said he should have left the task to summer maintenance workers instead of teenagers. He said he wasn’t worried about the kids getting hurt because “they were aware of what they were up against,” including huge stumps anchored by concrete.
Crowe said he doesn’t know if any adults were present when the sculpture garden was removed, but there were no injuries. The State Journal hasn’t learned the identities of the students involved.
VanHouten said allowing teenagers to move the stumps was irresponsible and dangerous – some of the stumps weighed more than 1,000 pounds.
“He (Crowe) saw this as a win-win; the people who disliked the sculpture got what they wanted, and the labor was on the backs of their own students,” VanHouten said in the letter.
“I am appalled that the administration would even consider such a thing; that they would use the students to do their ‘dirty work’ who would also then be left to ‘take the fall’ for this under the guise of the senior prank.”
Ann Wingrove, whose daughter graduated from FHS last year and worked on the art project, said neighbors reported seeing a Bobcat being used to move the stumps.
She and VanHouten questioned why the school didn’t file a police report after the artwork vanished. The women said the students’ action amounts to theft – VanHouten estimates the installation was worth about $10,000 in labor and donated materials.
“The police were actually informed beforehand that kids would be working on the property,” Crowe told The State Journal, though he said he wasn’t the one who called them.
VanHouten has asked Crowe to assign community service to the students who were involved. He told The State Journal that the school district has no plans to press charges, and he will not punish the students or assign community service.
“There will be those who contend that this is the destruction of public property, but this is a piece that is owned by the school district,” he said.
“It is my responsibility to be able to take that out when I see fit, whether that’s because I receive complaints, whether it’s for safety, or whatever.”
He said some of the students have approached him with concerns that they will get into legal trouble over their involvement.
“I told them they are not getting into any trouble because we are the owners of this property, and we have no intention of filing any charges against them,” he said.
Sculptor concerned for student artists
VanHouten called the act “sanctioned bullying,” and compared it to setting fire to stolen student work portfolios. She said art is academic work like any other school subject, and said all of the students who created the sculpture deserve a public apology.
Crowe said what happened was “absolutely not” bullying. He has apologized to three current FHS students who worked on the project, but hasn’t reached out to the others who graduated last spring.
He said he plans to issue an apology to them at Monday’s school board meeting, which will be broadcast on Cable 10, and through this article.
“It was never intended to hurt anybody. The fact that it has hurt people, I’m sorry for that,” he said. “I regret that, but if it had been done during the summer, it may have hurt their feelings then too. It was going to happen.”
VanHouten said she isn’t upset that people didn’t like the sculpture – she isn’t even opposed to its removal. She said complaints that it didn’t fit the historical context of the school building and surrounding neighborhood are valid.
But she said there’s a proper way to decommission a work of art, and what happened at FHS doesn’t fit the bill. She said it sends a bad message to students that they can demolish things they don’t like without consequence.
“Art making is not just about making beautiful objects to satisfy the need to be entertained or to make others feel good, nor is it the responsibility of the artist to be sure the viewer will ‘get it’ or feel smart because they get it,” she said in the letter.
“This is a successful work of art; it is of the caliber and quality that I would have been proud to exhibit at the park alongside the work of professional working artists.”
Art students react
Two FHS students who worked on the art project said they were surprised to find the front lawn empty that morning in late April.
Junior Madeline Perry said she looked forward to adding to the sculpture garden in the future, and thought that would improve its appearance.
“Even though I wasn’t crazy about the design, I didn’t appreciate them just picking the stumps up and taking them away without a formal (explanation),” she said Friday.
“I know that some students liked it, but I know a lot didn’t. I guess I didn’t appreciate them (celebrating) the stumps being gone, when a lot of people put work into it, and some people actually liked it.”
Perry said she understands that mowing was a problem, and she’s OK with the decision to remove the artwork. But she’s also hurt that it happened at the hands of her classmates, saying it went “a bit far” for a senior prank.
“I think it was more frustrating when I learned that the students did it – I could understand why the teachers and administrators would want to do it because it’s hard on the janitors to mow,” she said.
“I completely understand and agree with that, but not for students to just do that stuff on a whim and not understand the work that goes behind it.”
Senior Chad Avery said he wasn’t a big fan of the design either, and he’s glad students have more room to hang out on the front lawn now.
But Avery said he was a little upset by the public’s celebratory reaction to the removal of a student art project. He posted pictures of the empty front lawn on Facebook after the sculpture was removed, garnering dozens of “likes” and comments like “Thank goodness!! Looks so much better,” and “They looked horrible out there!!!!”
VanHouten said that’s the kind of thing she worries about, and she has spent sleepless nights thinking about the situation. She has asked that one of four large stumps – that proved too large for the students to move and now sit behind the school – be donated to her sculpture park to commemorate their work.
Crowe said he plans to do so. The other three stumps may be carved into a panther mascot or a picnic table, he said.
“I have been that student whose one true passion is thought by most to be the ‘easy A.’ I know what it feels like to have others believe that art is a joke, and to know in my soul, that it is also my life’s vocation,” VanHouten said to conclude her letter.
“I understand that struggle as it has come to life here. And so it is on behalf of the students who had the courage to work alongside me to create this sculpture and to place it in the public eye for all to see and to scrutinize, that I speak out.
“I cannot sit back and allow their work to be dismissed. I cannot condone such destruction of their academic work by another group of students, whether authorized by school leaders or not…it was still unequivocally the wrong thing to do. And so I am moved to stand up and speak for them.”