Why a Pig?

What makes some public art hardly-noticed-background and other public art iconic?

When the sculptor, Andrew Liecester, was commissioned to create a gate for a new park in Cincinnati, most Cincinnatians had forgotten that a century and a half earlier their city commonly had been referred to as Porkopolis. Those who did remember didn't especially want to. But Mr. Liecester did his research and created a gate for the park that acknowledged that history.

Flying pigs on riverboat smoke stakes in CincinnatiAll Cincinnatians know that their city exits because it was a good place for riverboats to stop. Most Cincinnatians remembered that vineyards had been the original industry until a blight wiped out the grapes. They didn't especially remember how swine herding took over after that. More hogs were processed per year in Porkopolis than any place else in the world.

The rendered fat left over from packing all that pork made Cincinnati a good place to make soap. To make soap you need fat and lye. There was an almost limitless supply of fat in Cincinnati. And that was the beginning of Proctor & Gamble soap manufacturing, the firm that now has gross annual sales that are greater than the gross national products of most of the countries in the world. It is a large and active corporate citizen in Cincinnati and is there because 200 years ago swine were herded there. So the swine were an important part of the history that no one wanted to remember.

Until, for the first time, wings

What Mr. Liecester proposed putting on top of the gate was not just pigs, but flying pigs - pigs with wings on them. People rebelled.

Half of the city thought pigs were demeaning and wanted them removed, but the other half laughed. There were news paper articles arguing about it and angry letters to the editor demanding their removal. The mayor said that the city risked "embarrassment from people who come here . . . and see this as a symbol of the city.”

A city council meeting was held with pro council members wearing snouts. Complainers were referred to as "oinkers." The sculptor said he was surprised at the sustained magnitude of the controversy. Especially since it wasn't about something like gun control, race, religion or morality, but rather about how people feel about what represents them.

It was the kind of debate that might be exactly what is needed to make a piece of public art an important part of the culture of a city.

Proctor & Gambled Sponsored Flying Pig Marathon

The pigs won and the gate was installed. Now you cannot travel in the area without bumping into winged pigs. They are on tee shirts. They are menu items. Eating establishments are named after them (1, 2). The Junior League of Cincinnati published a cookbook called I'll Cook When Pigs Fly. If you run in the marathon in Cincinnati you are running in the Flying Pig Marathon.

Pigletzander Calder sculptureWhen ArtWorks decided to raise money for nonprofit work by populating the city with fiberglass sculptures decorated by local artists, they chose flying pigs as the subject, named the event The Big Pig Gig and a festival of 400 pig sculptures blanketed the city of Cincinnati for a summer. Many of those remain on permanent display.

The author standing on a joint of Pigletzander CalderAt right the author stands on a joint of one of them, his Pigletzander Calder sculpture, a joke understood by almost no one but art students and art curators (who chose to place it at the entrance of the Cincinnati Art Museum). It was a mobile that was 25 feet tall and 45 feet long.

Batsy Ross, public artTen years after The Big Pig Gig the World Choir Games were coming to town and ArtWorks was asked to decorate the city for them. During the previous decade they had raised funds with similar projects that did not involve pigs, like public art made from baseball bats, to which I contributed Batsy Ross at left. So they were not devoted exclusively to pigs, but for the World Choir Games they chose pigs again. This time the pigs were supposed to have a musical theme and, if possible, be interactive. Pigcussion, a gong shaped like a pigSo I made for them Pigcussion, the pig-shaped steel gong at left being rung by a child with one of the attached mallets. Children in Cincinnati now grow up with pig shapes as icons representing them to the world.

Liecester's original flying pigs, seen top right, are four 3-foot-high bronze pigs with wings. They appear to be shooting out of 30-foot-tall riverboat smokestacks. Another nod to Cincinnati's history.

In its early years the only practical way in and out of Cincinnati was by riverboat. Liecester combined that fondly-remembered history with history that few remembered and many didn't want to. It created an argument that wasn't just about aesthetics. It was about the identity of the people in Cincinnati. That is not a shallow argument.

There are historians who say that there never has been a mass movement that was not united by a common enemy. This wasn't public art quietly dropped into place without making ripples. Conflict ensued. People united to fight for it. They came up with the pejoritive label "oinkers" to refer to their opponents and made banners and tee shirts and rubber snouts. They enlisted their friends to join their cause and rallied at a city council meeting. Anything that causes that much noise can become a reference point in a culture.

Isn't that what an icon is?

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