The Schuylkill River trail in Philadelphia has a new resident — a male figure hovering horizontally over a globe. He appears to be in the act of gliding among clouds.
It is placed along the jogging and biking path near Cherry Street, a stone’s throw from the new skate park. Of all the sculptures along the Schuylkill River, it may be the one most expressing athletic movement.
Sculptor Walker Hancock originally made “Air” in 1979 for the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia. When the Center was demolished in 1999 it was put into storage.
“There were three sculptures at that time, called ‘Earth,’ ‘Air,’ and ‘Water.’ Three different artists,” said Margot Berg of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. “Walker Hancock was in fact the coordinator and the leader of the small group of artists the brought along in this project.”
The other artists were Joe Brown and EvAngelos Frudakis, but their “Earth” and “Water,” respectively, are not part of this re-installation along the Schuylkill. Berg raised $30,000 for the restoration and placement of “Air.” She said the other artists are not as prominent in the history of American art as Walker, making it more difficult to find funds to restore their work.
Walker Hancock headed the sculpture department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for decades. During World War II he was a “Monuments Man” — part of a specialized Army unit that hunted down European art stolen by the Nazis. Its story was made into a movie last year starring George Clooney.
In Philadelphia he is most known for his World War II memorial inside the 30th Street train station. Before his death in 1998 at the age of 97, he had work for almost nine decades as a sculptor.
“In the eigths grade I remember doing a masterful model of a Parthenon, for which I used curtain rods for the columns, and supplied all the sculpture and pediments, and colored,” Walker said in a 1977 interview. “I was in very deep before I finished grammar school.
For the Civic Center sculpture, Hancock wanted “Air” placed on a pedestal of pink granite. Instead, he got a CorTen steel sleeve with a rusty veneer, filled with concrete. For the new placement, “Air” has finally put on the the artist’s intended pink granite.
As for the other elements, Joe Brown’s “Earth” is still in storage (many other works by Brown are dotted around Philadelphia, including four large athletes around Citizens Bank Park). Frudakis recently requested his “Water” be returned to him for restoration on his own dime.
“Air” will have a formal dedication ceremony later this month.