DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Merle Hay Mall was the place to be for Des Moines kids before suburban malls, so an unsettling piece of public art displayed there from 1974 until it was quietly placed in storage in the 1990s was forever burnished into their memory.
How could they forget the winged naked man, his narrow face in a state of anguish and concentration, absurdly bent over a little tricycle, his bronzed genitals flopping over the cross bar?
Now adults, they still remember the nightmares it caused, or the dirty giggles.
Jade Comito wasn’t the first to wonder what happened to it, only one of many to revive its memory online. She left Urbandale to attend art school, then settled into a job as a hotel desk clerk in Minneapolis. She would ask Des Moines visitors to the hotel if they remember the sculpture that terrified her as a youngster but in later years served as a perfect opportunity to embarrass her mom on shopping trips. She would spank his naked butt.
“It was kind of creepy and unsettling, a strange thing to see in a mall,” Comito told The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1kpmxzk) in a telephone interview.
Turns out, most everyone remembered it, but few knew what happened to it. She wrote a 2011 blog post about her quest to find what she called “The Angel of Merle Hay” and watched the nostalgic responses pour in. Last year, dsm Magazine took up the subject and received similar enthusiastic online response. And now trendy T-shirt shop Raygun is putting him on a T-shirt.
“It left with so little ceremony, I don’t think people had time to consider what happened to it,” said Comito, 27.
Here, then, is how a naked man on a trike became a cultural icon of Des Moines, and how it was rediscovered.
Joseph Abbell built the Merle Hay Plaza in 1959 as one of the first of its kind in the Midwest. It was enclosed in 1972 and began an expansion to the west.
“The newly built space cried out for something original, something powerful in addition to the rows of stores so like every other mall,” said Len Lamensdorf, Abbell’s business partner in the mall who today lives in California.
That’s where a young California artist came in. Mark Jacobsen had been working on paintings and drawings, and when Lamensdorf commissioned him to do the mall job, he jumped at the chance to work in another medium, with no restrictions.
“I was 25 at the time. I was happy to do something to get some attention,” he said of the project that took a year and landed him $15,000.
When it was finished, Jacobsen called it UpDown, reflecting the highs and lows he experienced as a young man, soaring on wings one minute and down the next, pedaling furiously to again gain flight, the very comedy/tragedy of life and its absurdity in full frontal view.
Others saw it differently. It was a different era with fewer pieces of public art on display in Des Moines. Media reports quoted sources that were either confused by its message, offended by its nudity or assuming a political message having to do with President Richard Nixon’s nickname that began with “tricky.”
“The Vietnam War was raging; there was a political element in everything,” Jacobsen said. “But it wasn’t done as a protest.”