Ugly? Too abstract? Sculptor speaks in defense of Nimbus

Canadian sculptor Robert Murray created Nimbus in 1977.  In the background are the hills of Douglas Island, part of the local terrain that he says inspired him during creation of the sculpture. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Canadian sculptor Robert Murray created Nimbus in 1977. The hills of Douglas Island in the background are part of what he says inspired him during the sculpture’s creation. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

What’s big, green, weighs 8 tons, and is shaped like a Kleenex half-pulled from the box? Nimbus, of course.

The polarizing and controversial sculpture recently returned to the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives and Museum that’s under construction in downtown Juneau.

Bob Banghart of the state Division of Libraries, Archives, and Museums and Canadian sculptor Robert Murray recently inspected the partially restored Nimbus.

“Sweet! It’s just totally remarkable. The shift in dynamic and how it looks now,” Banghart said.

“Well, the stance, to begin with, is back to what it was,” Murray added.

Banghart and Murray were checking out the sculpture before it was moved out of a construction staging yard and returned to its permanent home. Over the winter, a 4-inch wide strip of steel was welded to the bottom of the 19-foot sculpture.

Nimbus was turned so the arch would be visible from the street when it was placed on a new, round concrete pad in front of SLAM. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Nimbus was turned so the arch would be visible from the street when it was placed on a new, round concrete pad in front of SLAM. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“Here is one of the lines that I drew on it when I was here last time,” Murray said, pointing to various locations on the sculpture. “This is vertical line here, and we used that to make a perpendicular line across here, which they then burned off to get the piece standing level.”

Murray, who now makes his home in Pennsylvania, created Nimbus in 1977 as part of a public art program of the National Endowment for the Arts. A juried panel picked Murray and the sculpture concept. They also sited the sculpture in the small round plaza in front of the Dimond Courthouse, just across the street from the Alaska State Capitol. The Alaska State Council for the Arts and the Alaska Court System chipped in to pay for the $40,000 sculpture.

Murray says he was inspired by the natural terrain around Juneau during an early visit.

“The way in which the mountains relate to the fjord here, that definitely had a bearing on the way the piece took. Again, not in any sort of literal sense,” explained Murray. “Once you get into it, the way in which the arch is formed and how one element – there’s basically two elements to it – how one element supports the other and so on, is what kind of fascinates me about the form it takes.”

Markings from the restoration of Nimbus which is still in progress. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Markings from the restoration of Nimbus. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Rather than being influenced by someone else’s preconceived ideas, Murray says visitors should walk around and through Nimbus to decide for themselves what it means.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bob Bettisworth in particular and other state lawmakers weren’t very happy with what they considered a Gumby-colored, oversized, exploded garbage dumpster outside their windows. Juneau residents were also divided on the sculpture. Some were frustrated that they were unable to figure out what it meant. Others just called it damn ugly.

Six years after Nimbus was installed in 1984, legislation forced Gov. Bill Sheffield to remove Nimbus from the court plaza.

“I didn’t like Nimbus, mainly, from the standpoint that the workmanship was real bum,” said the late Juneau watercolor artist Rie Muñoz on “Conversations,” a television program recorded in 1985. “I mean, there were little dents. The foundry, how they put it together, was very poor workmanship.”

“So, I’m glad that it’s gone,” Muñoz said. “I have no objection to art being removed if people don’t like it.”

Murray shrugs it off while noting that such criticism is usually lobbed by those unfamiliar with other art forms or those who may have outdated ideas about the history of contemporary outdoor sculpture.

Read Robert Murray’s essay “Saving Nimbus” from March 1991 issue of Sculpture magazine, reprinted on Juneau Nimbus’ Facebook page.

“It’s come a long way from the days of statuary and men on horseback usually who didn’t look like the guy they depicted. Nor did the horse look like the horse they rode. But that’s OK,” Murray said. “That kind of monumental — what I call park sculpture — that kind of statuary is something that people were used to seeing in outdoor situations.”

Murray creates stabiles, the opposite of mobiles. They’re large, stationary or rigid monochrome sculptures that imply motion or particular forms with the bending, folding or twisting of the steel or other materials. He’s created over 60 pieces since 1959. Most have been installed in museums, galleries, and public facilities in the United States and Canada.

During Nimbus’ removal from the court plaza, as much as 4 inches of steel was left behind when the sculpture was crudely cut away and hauled off.

Robert Murray shows where the sculpture was cut away from its bottom at the Dimond Court Plaza in 1984 and then restored with new steel this winter. Also visible is the new steel framework constructed for the bottom. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Robert Murray shows where the sculpture was crudely cut to move it away from the Dimond Court Plaza in 1984. It was restored this winter with new steel and new framework for the bottom. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“It was just torched off following the grade, right at grade level,” Murray said. “But that grade had quite a slope to it. So, the piece was listing slightly.”

The slumping sculpture languished in a Department of Transportation storage yard for five years before a state museum curator had the novel idea to requisition it as a historical artifact because it was “Alaska’s most-controversial sculpture.” Nimbus was placed on the grounds of the old Alaska State Museum in 1991 and it remained there until demolition of the facility last year.

Murray notes the flap over Nimbus was a prelude to the National Endowment for the Arts’ subsequent battles with conservative lawmakers over Serrano’s “Piss Christ” piece and Mapplethorpe’s nude photos.

Now, after nearly four decades, perhaps Nimbus has become much more than just a piece of abstract art. Maybe it’s historical art, or even performance art or political art. Perhaps it’s a symbol for the debate over public funding for the arts and politicians sticking their nose in the process.

“Well, yes to all of those. All of the above,” Murray said. “That was a little bit what was wrong with the controversy. It got a little bit out of hand before the piece hardly had a chance to acclimatize — for people to acclimatize themselves to the sculpture, let’s say.”

Murray doesn’t take all the criticism personally, and he takes the controversy in stride. In fact, he seems to relish it.

“If you’re not rattling people’s cages a little bit, you’re failing,” Murray said. “If suddenly the work is just welcomed and openly embraced, then that leads me to think I’m doing something wrong here. (And that) I’m still back in the 19th century.”

Photograph of concept model of Nimbus shows a blue color. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Photograph of concept model of Nimbus shows a blue color. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

When Nimbus was recently reinstalled in front of SLAM, Murray was there to orient the sculpture and make sure that you could see through the arch from the street.

Nimbus’ restoration work this summer will include sandblasting the steel and a new paint job in its original Crayola-like seafoam green color. Another concrete pour will cover up new bottom steel reinforcements that prevent bending and warping.

Murray may return again to Juneau someday. SLAM officials say they’re considering a retrospective exhibition of models he created while designing some of his most notable sculptures. Critics may be interested to know that an early concept of Nimbus featured a dark blue color, much like Gumby’s flying mermaid friend Goo.

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