Public Art in Detroit

Love of Labor:
Local Artists Create Labor of Love to honor Labor Unions

With its shining arch rising 63 feet above the ground, the Labor Legacy Landmark, "Transcending," draws attention to itself as one of the newest additions to the Detroit skyline. The piece, commissioned by the Michigan Labor Legacy Project and funded solely through donations from union members without the aid of public or corporate money, is designed to celebrate the history and contributions of labor. The only such monument in the United States, the Labor Legacy Landmark is the work of local sculptors David Barr and Sergio De Giusti.

Barr, a teacher of sculpture and an internationally acclaimed artist, created the "Four Corners Project," in which he placed four carved marble tetrahedrons at equidistant sites around the globe, in effect creating the largest sculpture ever made. The Italian-born De Giusti is best known for his representative relief works, on display at public institutions throughout the state and around the world. One of De Giusti's works,a nine-foot bronze freestanding relief, is prominently displayed at the main plaza of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Building.

Barr, whose work is primarily abstract and symbolic, sought out the collaboration with De Giusti in order to add a more intimate dimension to the project. Both men envisioned something other than the funereal, European tradition of famous leaders commemorated by solemn statues. Instead, they set out to create a space - an environment where viewers can enjoy art as they come to understand and appreciate the struggles of labor.

From afar, (the piece can be seen from Canada) the work's great stainless steel arch is its most visible aspect. The notched, rounded arch resembles the ubiquitous symbol of labor - the gear and serves as a testament to labor's spirit of exuberance and defiance.

"Transcending's" circular form also stands in contrast to the city's grid-like design as a symbol of inclusion. The bottom of the gear appears to merge into the earth. Barr says, "The world drives industry and labor, and industry and labor drive the world."

The arch rests on a circular, raised dais, and is partially encircled by seven granite boulders all split symmetrically in two. According to De Giusti "Stones have a great presence and have always been used to commemorate events. They are markers of a people and a generation." Brought from Vermont, the stones suggest a strong linkage to the past and their permanence creates a link towards our future.

The boulders' polished surfaces are adorned with De Giusti's bronze reliefs which depict the sacrifices and achievements of labor. His method of presenting objects pushing through and receding into the flat surface of the relief, suggests the embedding of fossils in stone. In direct sunlight, the bronze shines like a geode from within the split rock.

The piece also includes a twisting marble path. A tile at the beginning of the path is engraved with the words, "Labor's achievements are America's strength," and subsequent tiles enumerate those achievements - "Free public education," "Human rights," "Equality for women." Other tiles feature historical labor-related quotes such as "Without struggle there is no progress" (attributed to Frederick Douglas), and Martin Luther King's words, "The arc of history bends toward justice."

De Giusti's reliefs line the path at it spirals inward. At the spiral's center are two boulders - one displaying chains and the other displaying hands - directly below the apex of Barr's arch. A look straight upwards reveals that the arch is divided by a narrow gap at the top. This separation symbolizes how far labor has come and how far it still has to go. At night the arch is made whole by lights projecting from the two disconnected ends.

When the piece was still in the proposal stage, then-Mayor Dennis Archer told the Detroit Free Press, "What the labor movement is doing is reminding everybody who builds buildings that public art also has a place in the betterment of a city." In "Transcending" Barr and De Giusti have created not only an important piece of art but also a significant historical and educational setting designed to connect viewers to the past and inspire them to affect their future. - Nick Sousanis

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