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Stunt aimed at getting more art flowing into Martinsburg

Artist puts toilet on a pedestal in center square

April 18, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com
  • A toilet with the words, "Put Art in Martinsburg" was placed on a pedestal in Martinsburg, W.Va.'s city square Wednesday morning. It was taken down about 30 minutes later.
Photo by Matthew Umstead

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The message written on the lid of a toilet that was placed on the pedestal in town square in Martinsburg Wednesday morning was simple enough: “Put art in Martinsburg.”

The pedestal was built last year for a sculpture of Martinsburg’s founder, Revolutionary War Major Gen. Adam Stephen, but city officials have since tabled the public art project, citing cost and other concerns.

The statue was planned as part of a $1.6 million redesign of the square to improve pedestrian safety aesthetics. The work was completed last fall.

Until it was removed by three city workers at 8:49 a.m., the bathroom fixture effectively turned the heads of motorists passing through the intersection of Queen and King streets.

Some smiled, others just stared as three purple helium-filled balloons attached to the toilet’s flush handle fluttered about in a soft rain.

Dangling from the toilet bowl was a “bill of sale” from “My Art Brokers” that was addressed to the city of Martinsburg for one “crappy work of art” for $50,000 to be payable upon receipt of work.

“Note: Thank for your support of the arts — David Johnson!,” the fake receipt read.

Johnson, aka Martinsburg artist David Heatwole, said the “publicity stunt” was part of his overall effort to show the community and city leaders “how the arts can make Martinsburg a greater place to live, work and visit” and also make sure his contemporary art proposal for the pedestal is “heard.”
 
Heatwole’s efforts later caught the attention of city officials, and police were investigating the incident.

The act came a little more than 12 hours after Heatwole, in an unscheduled presentation at Tuesday’s special Martinsburg City Council meeting, proposed that the city hold a competition to select a sculpture idea of a “contemporary nature” for the pedestal and reconsider placing a historical monument there altogether.

Heatwole said Wednesday that the public could be invited to vote on the best ideas, and the winning concept would be produced and installed.

“This could then be the start of a sculpture art walk throughout the city,” Heatwole said.

Keith Hammersla, curator for the General Adam Stephen Memorial Association Inc., said Wednesday there has been some talk of starting a private fund for the statue of the town founder, but no action has been taken.

Since the city council voted in December to table plans for a statue, a number of alternatives have surfaced, including a clock and use of the pedestal as a place for revolving art exhibits, Martinsburg Mayor George Karos said Wednesday.

Suggestions are being referred to a committee created for the art project, according to Karos.

Karos later said he did not wish his comments about the status of project to be included with an account of the Wednesday morning incident.

City Manager Mark Baldwin did not return messages left requesting comment.

In December, Karos noted council members’ concerns with the project’s estimated cost of $50,000 to $60,000 to taxpayers.

The mayor also noted the lack of an image of Stephen to use for the project and suggested the city take its time to decide what to put on the pedestal.

Hammersla said the nonprofit organization, which was formed in 1959 to restore Stephen’s 18th century limestone home, has no money for the statue, noting it barely can pay bills to take care of the East John Street property.
 
On Saturday, “Spring Fling,” which is Heatwole’s latest public mural in the city, is slated to be unveiled on the north side of the corner of Queen and Race streets.

Heatwole said last month that he donated his time to paint the 8-foot by 20-foot mural, noting that all of the materials for the project were donated by private businesses and individuals.
 
The artist previously facilitated the creation of a mural composed of thousands of bottle caps and lids to create a depiction of artist Vincent Van Gogh. That mural in the 400 block of West King Street was taken down late last year.

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