From the archives: Nelson's Shuttlecocks at 15 years old: Many things to many people

06/27/2009 8:15 AM

05/16/2014 5:11 PM

Editor's note: This story originally ran in 2009

It all starts with a man in a tuxedo chasing a toddler in an identical but miniature tux across the lawn. As fast as they’ve arrived, they’re gone. But like a downpour following a single drop of rain, the brides appear.

It’s wedding season for the Shuttlecocks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and pushy photographers hustle massive groups of maids and ushers around the lawn. There’s one bridal party off in the shade, by the courtyard. Another is just entering with the bride leading her bridesmaids, who are clad in floor-length black gowns. There’s a group with 14 maids and ushers posing in a line on the front steps of the Nelson.

It’s too hot, too bright and far too windy for this, but they’re on a tight schedule, so everyone just smiles.

Kristin Fontoura, who until hours before had been Kristin Tharp, poses with her brand new husband, Thiago, with Shuttlecock No. 2 in the background. They kiss. Her dress billows to the east while the feathers of the looming Shuttlecock point west. Their attendants — five each — mill around, waiting obediently for another command from the photographer.

Kristin was raised in Brazil by two missionary parents, but she didn’t find her Brazilian soul mate until she moved to Kansas City. Their relationship has been anything but normal: They’ve been planning the wedding for three months, but Thiago didn’t officially propose until the week before the wedding.

“We keep up the tradition of being nontraditional,” the new bride says.

Without knowing it, she has almost perfectly described the relationship between the museum, the city and the Shuttlecocks.

In their short lives, the four Shuttlecocks on the Nelson lawn have sat pretty for brides, looked the other way as teens groped and stood strong as children climbed. Young imaginations have seen the oversized birdies as fortresses, castles and mountains. To some people, the Shuttlecocks are an eyesore. To some sports fans, they’re a curse. To squirrels and dogs they’re just another territory to mark.

But the Shuttlecocks, which debuted 15 years ago this month, are an undeniable part of Kansas City’s landscape.

•••

They weren’t always going to be shuttlecocks.

Husband-and-wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen took one look at the Nelson-Atkins Museum — beautiful, symmetrical and serious — and knew immediately that they wanted to lighten it up.

Early sketches in the Nelson-Atkins’ “Inventing the Shuttlecocks” exhibit reveal conceptual sketches of socks, long underwear and Mickey Mouse. The couple then moved on to the idea of play, toying around with a basketball as it falls through a net. The two New Yorkers explored Kansas City and the Midwest, dreaming of a sculpture that would capture feelings familiar to the region. Words scrawled across coffee-stained notepaper in the exhibit read “comet,” “tornado” and “basketball.”

After an exhausting day of brainstorming, van Bruggen was relaxing in the museum and found herself drawn to a Frederick Remington painting of American Indians. More specifically, she was drawn to the feathers.

From there, the creative process exploded.

Oldenburg and van Bruggen examined all things flight and feather, drawing inspiration from the winged sphinxes outside of the Liberty Memorial, Amelia Earhart, windmill blades — and badminton birdies. Once they decided on shuttlecocks, the artists talked about calling the exhibit “Yardbirds,” the nickname of jazz musician and Kansas City native Charlie Parker.

The artists became obsessed with shuttlecocks, photocopying pages out of different dictionaries, purchasing a badminton kit and cutting out the picture of the shuttlecock from the box. They tore off feathers from a regulation tournament shuttlecock. They crafted models using found objects such as coffee filters, clay and Styrofoam.

And then it was time to bring the Shuttlecocks to life.

•••

A group of young adults sits in the shade, just beyond Shuttlecock No. 3. Dressed in their Saturday best and sprawled over three large blankets, they’re accompanied by a giant stuffed dog, some teddy bears and a Yorkie-shaped purse.

The occasion? A teddy bear tea party in honor of Allison Jones’ graduation from high school.

Jones sports a plastic, blue-checkered dollar-store picnic blanket around her hips to keep the wind from lifting her dress, a la Marilyn Monroe. A friend points out that Jones in her red flats and Yorkie-purse looks like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” She’s headed to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she’s, not surprisingly, considering a major in performance art.

Then there’s Aleah McGehee, 20, the bassoonist of an electronica/experimental band called the Telekinetic Walrus and the Pride of Ions. When she’s not making music, she’s majoring in music business at Miami University. She’s the eldest of this group of Overland Park women, but she is grateful to still have some friends remaining after seeing the strain high school graduation puts on relationships.

There’s also Ginny Carlson.

At first meeting, Ginny (“like in Harry Potter!”) seems like most almost-18-year-olds. She crushes on “Twilight’s” Edward Cullen, plans to dress up for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and worries about having a bad roommate when she leaves for Benedictine College late this summer.

She sits a little off to the side, using one hand to hold her hat down and the other to clutch a tan teddy bear. His name is Mr. Bear, she says, and he was given to her when she was in the hospital with cancer.

“Mr. Bear was with me during the horrible moments,” she says. “He was on my bed table watching over me, and of course, a part of my stuffed animal army.”

Carlson was diagnosed with leukemia on April Fools Day, 2005. She was 13. She bears a scar on the left side of her chest from a chemo port once buried beneath her skin. On her left calf, an abscess left a scar that she thinks looks like a caterpillar. When she doesn’t feel like explaining the infection that raged under the muscle there, she tells people she was attacked by a rabid catfish.

“(Cancer) made me more aware of the generosity of the people around me and their capacity for love,” she says. “And just how precious life was.”

After she missed the rest of eighth grade and first semester of high school, Carlson’s leukemia went into remission. She was determined to shed her image of “that girl who was sick.” When the two-year anniversary of her diagnosis arrived, she handed out lollipops to classmates in the hallways of St. Thomas Aquinas as she recited, “Cancer sucks! Here’s a lollipop.”

It’s this ability to find light during a trying time that has left her as she is now — wise beyond her years and anxiously awaiting college life.

“I’m so excited,” Carlson says. “But at the same time, I hope I find a group of people where I can relax, and just be myself and be completely comfortable around.”

•••

Once the artists decided they would create four larger-than-life shuttlecocks, Oldenburg and van Bruggen began factoring in a slouchy net — right where the Nelson-Atkins building stands. Suddenly, a breakthrough: the rigid and old building

is

the net, the game has just ended on the 22-acre court, and four shuttlecocks have been strewn to the side.

Where and how to place the shuttlecocks was the next order of business. Careful to avoid the symmetry and precision of the building, they settled on three shuttlecocks on the south side and a fourth on the north side of the building. The lone Shuttlecock No. 1 that sits perched on the tippy-toes of two feathers was a point of contention. The artists originally had it evenly distributed on its feathers like a tepee, but — as with the museum itself — they deemed it too static.

When it came time to construct the shuttlecocks, art was forced to give way to pure science. Exhibit drawings reveal the precise angles, lines and balances that are rarely considered when admiring such beautiful, giant objects from afar.

Artists and engineers worked together to make the four 5,500-pound sculptures look as light and airy as the real thing. Three different feather molds were cast with varying slits, each one perfectly measured. All together there are 36 feathers, weighing in at 450 pounds each.

The giant molds were created in New Haven, Conn. From there, the casts were manufactured by a Rhode Island yacht factory familiar with durable and lightweight materials that can withstand the high seas or any Kansas City weather.

•••

A large blue kite dips over the museum’s sprawling lawn. Two golden-haired girls are on all fours, pulling on the grass as they slither forward, chasing the kite while its back is turned. Like a game of Red Light, Green Light, they immediately freeze and bury their faces in the grass as it sharply descends toward them.

As the kite swoops down and just barely clips 7-year-old Sophia Slocomb’s hair, the kite’s commander, Walter Klammer, shouts, “Haircut!” Sophia’s older sister Nicole, 9, squeals as she splays herself onto the grass. Their father, Frank, chases them around with his new camera. He has been good friends with Klammer since they were as young as his daughters.

Klammer digs his heels in the ground and fully reclines onto his back — it takes all of his 210 pounds to control the wild kite at the end of the 75-foot line. The kite obeys and returns to gently soaring against the blue of the June sky. There are no clouds in sight, except when the kite dips down in front of the massive white feathers of Shuttlecock No. 4.

Klammer has been experimenting with kites since his father tried having a “second childhood,” 15 years ago.

“I didn’t think I would enjoy it,” he says. “But I did. I really, really love it.”

At his father’s funeral, Klammer enclosed special-ordered kites in everyone’s program to tell people to “go fly a kite.” After the service, in honor of his father, he and some friends flew kites on this very lawn.

•••

Trite. Superficial. Clutter.

All words used to describe the Shuttlecocks upon their debut on the lawn of the Nelson.

After two years of conflict among the commissioners, museum directors and the Board of Parks and Recreation, it took just five days to install the Shuttlecocks under the hot sun of late June 1994. At 546 times the height of a standard shuttlecock and made of fiberglass, plastic and aluminum, they permanently changed the aesthetic of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The Nelson hosted a housewarming party for the sculptures, “Shuttlecock Sunday,” on July 10, 1994. Hundreds of people attended the event, which featured live jazz, parades and celebrity badminton.

Initial reviews were mixed. Many visitors were surprised to learn the Shuttlecocks were permanent.

“Today the Shuttlecocks are basically icons for Kansas City and icons for the Nelson-Atkins,” curator Jan Schall says. “It didn’t take long (for opinions to shift). It’s anybody’s right not to like a piece of art.”

•••

It’s nearly impossible to get a picture of all the Shuttlecocks in one frame.

But all senior security supervisor Debbie Oliphant has to do is toggle a joystick to reveal clear, close-up images of the Shuttlecocks on the screens in front of her in the museum’s security office.

With a small ding, a red circle with the words “Alarm Active” pops up on the computer screen. More red circles pop up. Oliphant swiftly presses some buttons and zooms in. A woman gently leaning on Shuttlecock No. 3, posing for a picture.

The Shuttlecocks are monitored every hour of every day. Touching is discouraged, and climbing is prohibited. However, because there is a security guard standing feet away from the woman, Oliphant decides against turning on “the voice.”

Many patrons speak of this voice, as mysterious as it is muffled. It is not, as many tall tales tell, a recording. When the motion detectors go off and the security guard on duty sees someone disrespecting the Shuttlecocks, he or she will warn the offender over a loudspeaker hidden in the nearby foliage.

“We’re not going to say anything as long as they’re not doing anything,” says Oliphant, keeping her eyes on the monitors in front of her. “But if we see something, then we respond.”

Oliphant, who has worked at the Nelson for 28 years, has pored over these screens many times but has never witnessed anything too terrible by or on the Shuttlecocks. Sure, there’s the occasional climber or stray Frisbee, but for the most part, visitors respect the art.

“People are always setting their little babies inside,” she says. “You have people that sit in there and, for a lack of better word, they’ll sit in there and make out until we see it.”

Oliphant is part of a small force of behind-the-scenes people who live and work for the Shuttlecocks — the Shuttlecock entourage, if you will.

Paul Benson, associate conservator for objects at the Nelson, can see the orange ball of Shuttlecock No. 1 through the windows of his office. It’s less an office than an operating room for three-dimensional art. Machinery and special lights dangle from the ceiling over pieces that are thousands of years old. A grandfather clock sits right in the center, patiently awaiting restoration.

Benson is largely the head of all-things Shuttlecocks. A cardboard box in the lab has the words “Shuttlecock primer and intermediate layer paint.” There’s caulk, primer, thinner and miniature paint rollers — the things you’d find at any home repair store.

After the Shuttlecocks were installed, it was up to Benson to figure out how to take care of them. It took years to figure out how to appropriately repair and restore them.

“When these things were built, there just weren’t that many monumental fiberglass outdoor sculptures,” Benson says. “And trying to find in the literature, ‘how do you care for these things?’ — it’s just not there, because they didn’t exist.”

Benson and his crew even had to design a special ladder to work on them. At every rung there are hooks for the harness, and it’s made to gently attach to the structures, touching at only two points. Every part of the ladder that comes in contact with the Shuttlecocks is padded — Benson and his team repair scratches, they don’t make them.

“If they were made out of bronze, they’d be a lot easier to take care of,” he says, “but they wouldn’t look nearly as cool.”

Anna Zimmerman, a part-time sculpture technician, knows the dirty side of the Shuttlecocks. In good weather, the 25-year-old can be found cleaning a variety of filth from the exterior of the art.

With water and a mild detergent, Zimmerman removes traces of footprints, bird droppings, ladybugs and butterfly eggs. It’s not glamorous, but Zimmerman wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s just part of being out in the park,” she says. “I get to touch the artwork, I’m outside for the most part, I get to talk to the public and enjoy the sculpture park. It’s a wonderful job, it really is.”

•••

Tiffany Hankel sprints after a tiny white and brown dog.

“We might have to get the ol’ leash-a-roo on if you don’t stay close,” she warns Ripley, the newly adopted Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix. “Oh, gotcha.”

From far away, it’s hard to guess Hankel’s age. She could be a college student, babysitting the little girl with her. But as soon as the 5-year-old drapes herself across Hankel, it’s clear she’s a mother.

Hankel is an enviously cool mom. She wears a cowboy hat with turquoise beading, and she plans impromptu picnics on the expansive lawns of the Nelson with her daughter, Bishop. She and her husband, Christian, owned the rock ’n’ roll children’s boutique Lillibelle in the Plaza, where other cool moms could pick out junior Sex Pistols T-shirts and political onesies. In February, Lillibelle went down with the economy.

Hankel has brought Bishop to this park since she was in a stroller. Hankel’s own relationship with the expansive grounds started when she was no more than a kid herself. (You can find her in the Facebook group “I partied on the back steps of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in the ’80s!”)

“I used to hang out here when it used to be kind of a hangout for alternative people, and we would sit on the steps,” Hankel says. “So it’s fun to come here and take my daughter now.”

Now, minus the leather and plus a kid (and two decades), Hankel points to a Shuttlecock and explains what it is to her daughter.

“It’s amazing how much controversy there was when they first came out,” Hankel says. “Everyone was like, ‘Ugh, they’re so ugly,’ and I was like, ‘Those are the coolest things I’ve ever seen.’ ”

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