March 8, 2021

PUBLIC ART WITH A FLAIR

One Sunday in 1975, Heather, Patrick and I piled into the Buckley’s Volkswagen bus and headed to a parking lot in downtown Columbia.  For months, a local artist named Blue Sky had been painting (after dark, then covering his work with a tarp) a mural on the side of the AgFirst Farm Credit Bank building on Taylor Street.  He had announced a dramatic public unveiling of the completed mural—precisely at sunset on this particular Sunday.

The entire side of the building was covered with stitched together dark plastic garbage bags suspended by ropes from the rooftop.  Blue Sky and several assistants waited on the roof until the time was right.  Just before sunset, the booming sounds of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture spread through the streets. Dramatically, they lowered the covering to reveal a very realistic mural called “Tunnelvision.”  No longer looking like the side of an office building, it now appeared as if you could drive through this tunnel into the beautiful sunset just ahead.  It was a magical experience.

Twenty-five years later Blue Sky was commissioned to create a large public sculpture at the street edge of that same parking lot downtown. The mural would remain visible behind it. For over a year, Blue Sky again labored in secrecy as he worked on the massive piece. By that time I was working for Pete Cannon in his downtown office building a few blocks away on Washington Street.  We watched the work going on and couldn’t imagine what it would be.  Of course, that was exactly as Blue Sky intended.  Finally on February 18, 2001, he again scheduled a dramatic unveiling of the structure.  I took a couple of friends along to watch the show.  Imagine our surprise when firetrucks came down the street, with sirens and flashing lights and pulled up at the curb nearby.  An announcer reassured the startled onlookers that this was part of the show. Blue Sky’s father it turns out had been a Columbia fireman at one time and his artist son was paying tribute to him. (Blue Sky was born as Warren Edward Johnson but legally changed his name to Blue Sky in 1972.)  

When Blue Sky removed the tarp covering the gigantic structure of concrete and steel, it was a burst fire plug—with pumps pushing streams of recycled water up into a spray fountain.  Confirmed as the world’s largest fire hydrant, the tilted structure was almost 40 feet high and weighed 675,000 pounds. Officially named “Busted Plug Plaza,” the site attracted local dogs—just like all fire hydrants do.  The pumps quit working in 2012 so there’s no longer water at the site.  

Blue Sky is in his 80’s and still has a gallery in Five Points.  I took this photo on a visit back to Columbia—both Tunnelvision and Busted Plug Plaza are visible. Public art at its best!

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