I live in the Dilworth neighborhood, Charlotte’s first suburb, and I take our dog for rambling walks in the neighborhood several times a day. On one of our recent walks, we encountered some neighbors we never expected: two giraffes who had suddenly taken up residence on the corner of East Boulevard and Lyndhurst Avenue. Well, I guess I should mention that these are not actual giraffes — they are giraffe sculptures — but their sudden appearance in Dilworth aroused my curiosity, so I set out to learn more about the arrival of my new neighbors.
Until a few months ago, a towering tree stood on the corner where the giraffes now reside, but the tree split in half during a bad storm and had to be removed. The owner of the property, famed Charlotte architect David Furman, felt that something was needed to fill the space vacated by the fallen tree.
He contacted Ben Parrish, owner of the locally based Steel Design Studios, and asked him if he would be interested in creating a metal sculpture to be installed in the space.
Parrish had recently created some sheep sculptures for another client and had enjoyed the experience of fabricating animals from steel, so he suggested creating a pair of giraffe sculptures. Furman liked the idea and commissioned Parrish to design, fabricate and install the giraffe sculptures.
I recently talked with Parrish about his approach to creating these giraffes.
“I wanted to give them a sense of movement, and sense of fluidity,” he said.
He certainly succeeded in accomplishing this goal. One of the giraffes appears to be stretching its long neck, looking outward. The other is stooped low, giving the appearance of grazing. Parrish also said he wanted the sculptures to be “playful,” which led him to adorn the outstretched giraffe with large hoop earrings.
Parrish fabricated the giraffe sculptures on and off for about two months.
“I worked in a free-form style,” he said. “I like to let the metal speak to me. I applied some colors, but I also incorporated rust. Although I did not have a set plan, I wanted them to look like they belong in the space.”
In an effort to make the giraffes look (or feel) more at home, Parrish plans to plant long grass at the base of the sculptures so that they appear to be standing in the middle of an African savannah.
Although the giraffes have only been in place for a short time, they have already been embraced by the residents of the neighborhood. Parrish told me he’s been amazed at the enthusiastic response he has received since the giraffes went up.
“I thought I would hear from one or two people, but lots of people have contacted me, and it’s all been positive,” he said. “It’s gratifying.”
The children in the neighborhood have been especially enthusiastic in their response to the giraffes. I recently ran into a mother with her young daughter on their way to see the sculptures. The mother and I started talking about the giraffes, but the daughter became impatient. She tugged at her mother’s hand and kept saying, “Giraffes, giraffes.”
Neighborhood kids not only enjoy looking at the giraffes, but sometimes respond by making up stories about the giraffes. For example, 8-year-old Todd Trivette, a third-grade student at Dilworth Elementary School, came up with a wild story that was partially inspired by Rio, one of his favorite movies.
Todd lives about a block from the sculptures with his mother, Karen Trivette, and stepfather, A.J. Chavis. According to Todd, the two giraffes were being flown to a new zoo when one of them had the idea to break out of the plane. They used tarps as parachutes and landed in Dilworth, where they decided to stay.
Parrish’s giraffes, like Niki de Saint Phalle’s Firebird sculpture standing at the entrance to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, are examples of public art that engage spectators in a playful and accessible way. The giraffes invite spectators to view them from multiple angles, to take photographs beside them, to tell stories about them.
I predict that Parrish’s giraffes will join the Firebird as artistic landmarks. They are already well on their way to becoming beloved members of the Dilworth community.
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