NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Five-year-old Alex Angus walks gleefully around the historic dragon of Fannie Mae Dees Park.
He runs his fingers along the creature’s colorful body. His eyes grow big as he sizes up its great arching back.
It’s been nearly two years since he’s played with this mythical beast.
For many, many months the dragon was fenced off from curious kiddos. It was broken and needed lots of money to fix it. Alex didn’t like the dragon being in disrepair.
So not long ago, when he learned of the dragon’s plight, Alex went door to door in his neighborhood collecting money, dollar by dollar, to help bring his magical companion back to life.
Now, thanks in part to his kind heart and thousands of dollars in donations from the community, the mending of the mosaic dragon is complete.
It was to officially reopen with a celebration party Sunday in the place known to many Nashvillians as Dragon Park. And many, many kids will be able to have fun here once again. Including Alex.
“It shows the power of community and the power of a child almost not knowing any better,” his dad, Bob Angus, says. “He never thought he wouldn’t make a difference.”
The great blue-hued creature that swims through the park is more than 3 decades old.
It is the creation of Chilean-born artist Pedro Silva, who came to Nashville from New York to design the piece.
The dragon was more than just an artistic whimsy. In the late ‘70s, there was some unrest in the Hillsboro-West End neighborhood as urban renewal and the demolishing of houses left a divide.
Fannie Mae Dees Park was created when a previously seized piece of land was deemed unsuitable as a future hospital site. Instead, the city marked it as a green space and named it after one of the greatest opponents of urban renewal, Fannie Mae.
The new park needed a centerpiece.
Anne Roos, a member of the Metro Planning Commission and the Metro Parks Board, sought out Silva, who had created several colorful public art projects in New York.
The creation of the dragon - which debuted in 1981 as a mother and baby dragon officially titled “Sea Serpent,” though no local calls it that now - was meant to help unify unhappy neighbors.
“She saw it as an avenue to bring people in diverse categories in the community together in one common goal,” says Martha Stinson, vice chairwoman of the neighborhood association and leader of the Save Our Dragon campaign.
And it did.
Silva invited anyone with an artistic inclination to contribute.
With squares of plywood and piles of broken tiles, nearby neighbors and visitors from afar shaped jagged triangles into pictures of mermaids and sea fish and sailing ships.
Silva affixed each piece to the 200-foot-long dragon, and the community’s creations soon spanned the creature’s long twisting body and its curved and spiny back.
Not all the mosaics were water themed. There were trees and birds, hearts and guitars. Silva designed faces to look out from each towering 13-foot-high arch. A couple visiting their son at Vanderbilt created a tile featuring a buffalo and Niagara Falls.
That one, in particular, is part of what makes this dragon so special for the Angus family.
When Alex pointed out the wooly brown creature while playing there one day a couple of years ago, it inspired his dad to tell a personal tale.
Bob’s parents are from Buffalo, New York, and he remembered the frigid and roaring water near where his own father grew up. It was a special moment for Bob. The dragon, he says, has a way of inspiring them.
In fact, he believes the whole park seems to give kids, including Alex, a unique kind of energy.
“It’s something more than just a playground for him,” Bob Angus says. “With the dragon, there’s almost a sense of wonder.”
But the piece was never meant to be permanent public art.
Over the years, tiles crumbled and fell. Concrete cracked. Age and temperature destabilized the dragon’s hollow wire and rebar structure.
It no longer appeared safe for the many children who delightedly climbed the dragon’s back or rode its neck like a conquering hero.
To keep the dragon’s condition from getting worse, the sculpture was closed to the public in May 2016 as the city and the neighborhood discussed what to do next.
Unlike most public art in Nashville, the dragon was not under the protection of the Metro Arts Commission, Stinson says. It is instead owned by Metro Parks, and money for upkeep competes with all of the other maintenance needs in the city’s park system.
Mending the dragon’s structural problems without damaging the mosaic designs was expensive and challenging.
It would take a massive community fundraising effort and the work of multiple art conservation and restoration experts to make it happen.
Behind the direction of the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association, a campaign was launched to raise $200,000.
Alex wanted to participate.
“It really upset him that other kids wouldn’t get to play on the dragon anymore,” Bob Angus says of his son.
So, with his parents’ encouragement, Alex wrote a letter (which his parents typed) asking his neighbors to give just $1 to the dragon. Alex signed every letter in crayon in his preschool scrawl.
Then he went door to door, approximately 35 houses in all, to pass the letters out.
People gave dollar bills, and quarters, and 20s.
In the end, Alex raised nearly $500. When he went to add it up at the bank, his dad told the teller his story. The next thing they knew the bank manager was there and First Tennessee was matching the donation.
Alex’s $1,000 joined efforts by so many others. Kids who donated their allowances. A young girl who made dragon-themed cupcakes and cookies and had a bake sale. A GoFundMe account raised $50,000 in the grass-roots effort alone, Stinson says.
Work on the dragon began in March 2017. Workers in hazmat suits and helmeted masks ground out the structurally deficient areas of concrete. Cracks and crevices were filled and reinforced with fiberglass.
The mosaics were traced and carefully removed. Faded and broken tiles, which years ago were donated in discarded fragments, were replaced by high-quality fired and frost-resistant tiles in the same colors. The mosaics were just as carefully rebuilt.
Metro Parks installed a new drainage system near the dragon and recontoured the land to keep water from pooling. It laid a new rubber surface for kids to play on.
Now, the restoration is complete.
The celebration of its reopening on Sunday also will mark the first Dragon Music Sunday of the summer. The free music concert in Fannie Mae Dees Park will feature Southern rock ‘n’ roller Webb Wilder.
Alex and his parents will be there.
He can’t wait to do what he always loved with the dragon.
“Play on it,” he says with a smile. “And climb.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
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