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Sculpture’s water pistol falls victim to changing times

SHARE Sculpture’s water pistol falls victim to changing times

SANTA FE, N.M. — The boy and girl, slightly crouched, take aim at one another. She has a hose. He brandishes a water pistol.

For Linda Strong, it was an image that captured all the joy of being young.

When the sculptor was asked to create a fountain for a city park, it was a natural: Using her children as models, she caught in bronze their many water fights.

That was 21 years ago. Today — to some observers who have watched gun violence escalate and children bleeding on school yards — the piece evokes something more sinister.

So Strong is altering her sculpture in this art-savvy city. She chiseled off the boy's hand Thursday and gave him a new one, holding a garden hose rather than a gun.

"I think it's the right thing to do," she said.

Last year, following the deaths of 14 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, there were letters to a local newspaper and calls to City Hall objecting to the fountain.

"At first I didn't consider doing anything about it," said Strong, sitting in her studio south of Santa Fe. "I just went, 'Oh, listen to these people.' "

But then her fountain was vandalized. The boy was smeared with green paint, and someone wrote "no gun" on his legs.

The artist became intent on protecting her work.

"And so I capitulated. I thought, the times have changed," she said. "I am open-minded enough to change with the times."

Strong went to the city, and the Santa Fe Arts Commission recommended the change.

"I don't like revisionism in art, but I think art in public places has another responsibility," said commission chairwoman Letitia Frank.

Strong, 58, is the first to admit that when no water is running through the fountain — frequently, during this summer's drought — the boy's pistol doesn't look like a squirt gun.

"I want people to look at it and enjoy it. It's not being enjoyed," she said.

Not everyone agrees with the revision.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with it," said Diana Beilman, 15, glancing over at the sculpture from a nearby skateboard park.

"Little boys hold guns all the time," she said.

A gift to the city from Strong's late mother, the fountain was dedicated in October 1979, the International Year of the Child.

There were objections even then.

In a yellowed letter-to-the-editor in one of Strong's scrapbooks, Charlene Neel refers to a recent shooting over a traffic dispute, and writes that there is "quite enough (violence) on television and on the streets of Santa Fe."

The writer — now Charlene Neel Dye of Oxford, Miss. — recalls that at the time, she wouldn't allow her young son to play with guns or war toys.

When she saw the fountain, "I was shocked. The little boy was in such an aggressive stance, and he had a gun." She remembers other friends sharing her concern.

But Jack Samson, who moved to Santa Fe in 1930, blames "self-appointed guardians of our morality" for the planned alteration.

"It is an effort to be politically correct, and I think it goes over the bounds of common sense," said Samson, a former editor of Field & Stream.

The estimated cost of the alteration is about $1,700.

"If you look at public sentiment now in terms of guns and youth, even though it's a squirt gun, most people in favor of (altering) it feel that the message it's providing in its imagery, is not appropriate in this day and age," said city spokesman Juan Rios.

Locals enjoying the park on a summer afternoon appeared to agree.

"If the artist and her family are willing to change it, and it will calm people, why not? We need more calm," Kerry Featheringill said.

On the Net: Santa Fe Arts Commission: www.ci.santa-fe.nm.us/arts

Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.santafe.org