Waco Sculpture Zoo: Installing art for future generations

By Fiona Bond
Executive Director

This post is an extension of the December episode of Conversations with Creative Waco radio program on 103.3 KWBU fm, where we take you behind the scenes of art and culture in Waco. Catch us on the air every fourth and fifth Friday of the month at 11:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.

PHOTO CREDITS (Above) Robbie Barber and Rod Aydelotte (Below) Robbie Barber and Fiona Bond

On Christmas morning (after unwrapping presents!), our family headed down to the trails along the Brazos River to enjoy a different kind of gift – to our whole community. It was a perfect morning, and the trails were alive with people who had done the same as us and taken a moment in their busy holiday season to enjoy the animal sculptures of all kinds taking their place along University Parks Drive between Washington Avenue and the entrance to Cameron Park Zoo at Pecan Bottoms. Having been involved in this project from its earliest stages, it was wonderful to see people of all ages visibly and audibly delighting in the artwork.

In this month’s Conversations with Creative Waco, we went behind the scenes of Waco’s newest art attraction, the Waco Sculpture Zoo, with Tom Balk, Senior Park Planner at City of Waco’s Parks and Recreation Department, and Robbie Barber, Associate Professor of Sculpture at Baylor University, to tell us more about their part in the project.

As a park planner, Tom Balk is both artist and engineer whose job is to think about every aspect of the way we build our urban green spaces. For the sculpture zoo, Tom worked with Creative Waco, artists, contractors, and engineers to help choose the ideal placement for each sculpture. His job is a bit like installing an exhibition, except that the exhibition is permanent and in a busy public area. He had to weigh the best sculpture locations against risk of damage or injury, buried utility structures and 100 year flood resistance on each sculpture.

Robbie Barber is one of two local artists that were selected from a national call for proposals to create a piece for the Waco Sculpture Zoo. Robbie had long dreamed of doing a public art commission, so when the opportunity arose in his own city, he was especially motivated to throw hit hat into the ring. His work is characterized by his love of working with metal and other industrial materials that evoke rural America. He likes to add playful, quirky, and sometimes educational details to his designs, drawing attention to the fact that we are constantly surrounded by art and design that we don’t notice. His sculpture for this project is an abstracted but life-size giraffe made from tubular stainless steel, and is over 18.5’ tall. The giraffe has its neck extended and its tongue reaching for the canopy of live oak leaves that will frame its site in Pecan Bottoms.

Originally, project donors Clifton and Betsy Robinson intended to bring 5 or 6 sculptures to the riverside trail, but they were so impressed by the shortlisted options from the national search that they invited other community members to join them in sponsoring additional sculptures. The result was a further 32 donor families and 28 new artworks. The diversity of the sculptures, the animals depicted, the artistic styles, materials and techniques will make the finished result a kind of “walk through art history”.

Not everyone will love every sculpture…and that’s exactly as it should be. It’s a bit like experiencing a tasting menu, or a music album. Everyone will have different favorites. Some of the pieces have a real “wow” factor. Others will become selfie favorites. Many are designed so that children can play or interact with them. Several tell real-life, relatable animal stories about disability or family relationships, and all of them will invite us to ask questions about art, animals, and ultimately about ourselves.

Art of all kinds is our gift to future generations. It’s a way of showing those who come after us that we lived deeply, valued things beyond ourselves, and found ways to connect, hope, and create – despite the chaos that dominates the headlines. As we step into the 2020s, we at Creative Waco are awestruck by the renaissance of arts and culture we are seeing in our community. Our heartfelt thanks to all of you who are making amazing things happen – artists, makers, performers, writers, audiences, thinkers, investors, and those who show up when it matters. Between us, we are creating something to celebrate. We wish you every blessing for a new year full of love, hope and creativity!

Robbie Barber, Tom Balk, Fiona Bond and Luann Jennings in the KWBU studio: photo credit: Brodie Bashaw

Learn more about the segment featuring Luann Jennings talking about professional development for artists wanting to build their arts-based businesses in Waco. Or contact Luann at [email protected]