“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774
Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.
If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.
For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.
I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.
My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.
In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.
After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.
In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.
Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.
I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.
My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.
Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.
Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.
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