Arts & Culture » Arts


A struggle between patron and artist creates panic in Turtle Park


Dedicated in 1996, Turtle Park stands out as one of the most popular works of public sculpture, and uses of public space, in St. Louis. Artist Bob Cassilly and architect Richard Claybour took what was little more than unused green space and transformed it into a place where families meet, where kids play, where people walk, sit, think and admire those grand sculptures. Turtle Park has become a civic marker, situated across Highway 40 from the zoo, a place where those traveling through the city or making their day-to-day commute can observe something unique -- the large turtles in different states of action and inaction, objects made of dark-gray concrete melded with the mounds of earth.

A couple of weeks ago, those who regularly pass by the park noticed that something had changed -- weren't the turtles now faintly orange? -- and then drove on, thinking nothing more about it. But when Cassilly saw the new autumn shade on the turtles for the first time, en route to his kids' soccer game, he says, "I almost had an accident."

What he found on closer examination is, to him, an assault on his artistic vision. Forest Park director Annabeth Calkins gave the OK for the turtles to be coated with a cement-and-acrylic solution "to preserve the turtles and have a safe place for children to play," she says, and she did it without consulting Cassilly.

The turtles and serpents of Turtle Park have been turned from gray to reddish brown. The coating has been applied unevenly -- thin in some places, gloppy or spattered in others. Subtle detailing has been lost -- the creatures' eyes no longer have the distinct line quality of before; the small fissures in each shell are less defined. The surface is coarse as sandpaper in some places, smooth in others. Cassilly intended a natural darkening and staining of the gray concrete, produced through human contact, so that the evolution of these materials would continue through time. That evolution has stopped.

"The essence here is public sensibility. There isn't any," says the outraged artist. Although his lawyer has advised him not to do anything rash, Cassilly is on a rampage. Who would expect otherwise of Cassilly, the frenetic mind behind the City Museum, who once offered Mayor Clarence Harmon a check for $250,000 to save the Arena, who follows his imagination like a cowboy riding a wild mustang? "Annabeth is completely responsible for this," he says. "All you have to do is start claiming safety, and all bets are off. They had a problem with the stone color because it was aging. It's a natural material. If this new stuff is so great, why don't they cover City Hall with it?

"It's so demoralizing. It's like visual nihilism. Nothing makes a difference. Remember when they had those advertisements for Shake 'n Bake? "You can have chicken that tastes just like takeout.' Now they've done the same thing with these turtles. You used to have the real thing. Now you can have the fake shit."

By Monday morning, the day before Halloween and two days after Cassilly's discovery, a person, or persons, has expressed more outrage. The turtles and serpents that make up Turtle Park have been spray-painted with phrases conveying their imagined anguish: "WE HAVE BEEN SLIMED," cries the snake. "HELP I CAN'T BREATH," moans the turtle, perhaps too stressed to spell correctly.

Cassilly drives up in a blue Miata, raring to produce a media frenzy. "Nobody even noticed this," he says contemptuously, "until some of my benefactors spray-painted it." Does this mean he knows who did it? A sly grin crosses his face. No, he says -- he doesn't know, but he admits he takes pleasure in "the vandals who vandalized the vandalism.

"The things should be bulldozed," says Cassilly. He was given no notice of this action, he claims. If he had, he says, "I would have chained myself to them."

Later the same day, Sonya "Sunny" Glassberg calls. Glassberg commissioned Turtle Park, paid more than $200,000 for its creation and then donated it to the city of St. Louis. Those who know her generally use words such as "well meaning," "sweet" and "good-hearted" to describe her. She says, "I know there are other people who are philanthropists, but I don't know that they give with as much heart as I do." She's been a big donor for projects in Forest Park, Greensfelder Park and the zoo. She's been a supporter of Cassilly's City Museum: "I just gave him a six-figure gift so the inner-city kids could get in free," she says. At 82 years of age, Glassberg says, "My joy in living, really and truly, is to give back to St. Louis what St. Louis has meant to me."

She's had an ugly confrontation with Cassilly this day. She heard a radio report about the graffiti and came down to investigate. She found Cassilly with reporters surrounding him, Glassberg says, "and he was wild. He really needs something to calm him down." She describes her confrontation: "He said, "Look what you've done to my turtles!' He's furious at Forest Park, and I said, "Don't be angry at Forest Park. It's my fault. I knew they had to be taken care of, and nobody was taking care of them. You wouldn't even come back to look at them.' And I said, "Furthermore, Bob, these are not your turtles, and they're not my turtles. I paid you top price. You never even gave me a bid. When you needed an extra $50,000 for concrete, I'd come over with a check. And I was more than generous about everything. They're not your turtles. They don't have your name on them. And they're not my turtles. They belong to the city of St. Louis and the children from everywhere.' And I said, "I want you to remember that.'

"I really thought he was going to kill me. I said, "I want to tell you something, Bob. You may not talk to me like that. You may not look at me like that.' And I left. He was just wild."

Glassberg says, "I wanted to tell my side of the story. I have a maintenance fund of my own that I gave -- my own money -- to take care of Turtle Park. It's given to the children from all over, because I love children. Cassilly did the turtles, and they were beautiful. Although we didn't have a written contract of any kind, he was supposed to see that they were in good shape all the time.

"For one year I have called Bob Cassilly," she continues, steel entering her voice, "and asked him to meet me over there and see the condition of the turtles. Annabeth Calkins, from Forest Park, and I had two appointments with him in the past three months at 8 o'clock in the morning to meet us, because I was worried about the turtles. They were cracking and were looking terrible. He never came. I wrote him a letter. He never answered.

"Before I did this to the turtles, I called him three times. No answer. So I decided I was worried about the turtles and I was going to do something about them."

So she called Ron Sansone of Sansone Construction, and he "came out to tell me what they could do and how they were going to do it, and they worked very, very hard. And I paid them out of my own money. They were not waterproofed, so water had, according to the concrete men, leaked and caused some of the cracking. So they sandblasted them and waterproofed them and then put this finish on. We checked on the colors. We could have done anything we wanted, and many people thought they were too dark and dirty-looking before, so we lightened them a little bit. I bet I've had 50 telephone calls from kids who think it looks so pretty."

Glassberg mentions her concern for the turtles, the attention she has paid to the turtles, her love of the turtles at least a half-dozen times. "The turtles were sick!" she exclaims. "I mean, they really were sick. They were cracking, and one of them had a toe that was off and a tail that was off. I was sick about them.

"I go to Turtle Park once a week. I've had terrible tragedy in my family. I have a 23-year-old grandson dying of Hodgkin's. I go to Turtle Park once a week to sit on the turtles to pray. So it means a lot to me."

What does one do when faced with so much love? Sansone, of Sansone Construction, says, "She's just a sweet woman, and I'd do anything I could to help her. She said she had been trying for a year to have them protect it. Those are her babies, and she'd been worried about them."

But when Sansone talks about what Glassberg wanted or what the turtles needed, he doesn't talk about structural integrity. Rather, he says, "She didn't like the color." He also says the turtles needed to be protected from graffiti, and this coating does that. The cries for breath discovered on Monday morning were removed by the afternoon. But had there been any problems with graffiti before? "Not that I know of -- I don't know," says Sansone.

He provides no more evidence of serious structural flaws to the sculptures than "There were a few places that needed repair" and "They were kind of dirty." Sansone says, "What I could see before working on them was, there were a lot of stains from people being on them -- they were dark and stained" -- the type of staining Cassilly intended.

Sansone admits he did not consult with the artist. "Does Cassilly own those turtles? Are those his turtles?" he demands.

No, they're not. But they're not Glassberg's, either. They belong to the city of St. Louis. "That's correct," Sansone defers.

Asked whether a decision-making process is in place in the city parks on matters of restoration, maintenance, accessioning and deaccessioning of public art, city parks director Dan McGuire responds, "The direct answer would be no."

A former alderman, and husband to Regional Arts Commission director Jill McGuire, he acknowledges a big gap throughout city government with regard to all facets of public art: "All of that is missing," he says.

Did McGuire approve the action taken on the sculptures? "No, I did not," he says. "It was made at Annabeth's level. She is the Forest Park manager who is in charge of the maintenance of the park." McGuire adds that the coating was applied in an effort "to preserve the piece. This was not an attempt to change anything. It was to try and conserve what was there." But these words ring hollow: The sculptures were gray but now are brown; the sculptures were delicately rendered but now are coated unevenly. Details have been lost.

James Mann, director of Forest Park Forever, which cuts the checks from Glassberg's maintenance fund, says, "It was pretty obvious that they were deteriorating fairly rapidly. Certainly by looking at them it seemed there was a lot of cracking and damage." But when told that the creator of the turtles was furious about the decision and that it was made without his consultation, Mann can only offer, "Oh, I didn't know that. I can't answer that. You need to get ahold of somebody in the parks department who can tell you more about their thinking on it."

The one person who was directly responsible for the decision to coat the turtles is Calkins, but when asked to go through the decision-making process, all she says is, "We really wanted to preserve a very much-loved park. We wanted to preserve the turtles and have a safe place for children to play." It would serve no constructive purpose to go beyond that statement, she says.

Documentation revealing the flaws in the sculptures is in the possession of the park and Glassberg, says Calkins. However, she says, no expert in art restoration was consulted "prior to the work." Sansone Construction, she says, found that "the work was being invaded by water."

Cassilly admits he was churlish in not responding to Glassberg's entreaties, but he claims he has regularly inspected the turtles and effected needed repairs. As recently as two months ago, he says, "I went around and caulked all the joints and did all the stuff they wanted me to do. All I didn't do was fix one chip." Calkins agrees she met with Cassilly on Aug. 11 and "he did some work, yes."

The sculptures, Cassilly says, are made of microsilica concrete, "twice as fine as cigarette smoke, impervious to weather." Concrete cracks, no matter how fine it is, but, Cassilly says, "I made weak spots on the concrete so it would crack -- say, on the big turtle -- around the shell and the legs, to create sort of an organic matter rather than a giant joint that would make it look mechanical."

His partner in the project, Claybour, concurs that Cassilly was keeping up the maintenance. "I just wish somebody had talked to me before they did it," he says. "I know there have been concerns about structural deterioration that I've heard expressed by others. I was certainly concerned when I heard that, but when I went over, it looked just fine. Bob had done some minor crack repair, which sounds like it was pretty cosmetic. I haven't seen any evidence of anything that needed repair.

"Sunny goes over there all the time, but I go over there all the time, too."

"It's all a matter of judgment," says Cassilly. "I met Annabeth three or four times. I came and fixed it. It was superficial things that were wrong with it.

"OK, I didn't call them back," he admits. But, he says, when he did meet with Calkins, "the things she wanted to do were so nitpicky I didn't get around to it. I don't answer most of my calls. I wasn't treating (Glassberg) any worse than anybody else.

"Using their own discretion without my discretion, this is what they do. The response is so inappropriate."

Without any procedures in place for dealing with matters relating to public art, Calkins listened to the most insistent voice. Cassilly, who made the work, says there was no problem. Ron Sansone may be an excellent construction man, but he is not practiced in art restoration. There is no evidence that anyone with a knowledge of art restoration and preservation was consulted. There had been no history of graffiti's staining the turtles. In four years, there had been no evidence of unsafe conditions.

Turtlegate, like other public scandals, has a lot to do with wealth, power and love. Glassberg had the money and the power to have Turtle Park created, and she had the money and power to have it changed. "If (Cassilly) had said he didn't want them changed, I wouldn't have done it," she argues. "But when I saw they were so dark -- and in the evening you can't hardly see them at all -- we thought we'd lighten them up. We did not have to ask his permission for anything.

"I'm sorry if he's offended, but if he wants to think about it, it would be his own fault. If he had met us over there, this would never have happened."

But, then, if Calkins and the city parks had made judgments on the basis of evidence, study and careful assessment -- rather than a dear woman's wishes -- this might not have happened, either.

"I love the turtles, and they gave me great joy," says Glassberg. "Now it's all ruined."

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