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Forever, sculpture

Artwork, and a city director, carve out a special place along Little Rock's riverfront.


VOGEL SCHWARTZ SCULPTURE GARDEN: A cluster of smaller works near the Little Rock Marriott. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • VOGEL SCHWARTZ SCULPTURE GARDEN: A cluster of smaller works near the Little Rock Marriott.

Yari Montes, a young woman from North Little Rock, made her annual trip to Riverfront Park last Wednesday so she could have her photograph made next to her favorite sculpture. Her own pretty face framed by long brown hair and a rose tucked behind one ear, Montes leaned in close to "Forever a Rose," an almost life-size bronze of a kneeling woman with a bowed head, the sweep of her hair mostly obscuring her face, a rose in her hand. Her back is to the Arkansas River; in front is a grassy area partially enclosed by roses.

Montes said the sculpture is both beautiful and a bit sad. "It's like she was going through a hard time," Montes said.

It was the sixth year Montes has had her photograph made with "Forever a Rose," and a reporter just happened to be passing by. "Today was the day!" she laughed. Then she and her brother and three sisters continued their walk in the park.

It was exactly what Dean Kumpuris envisioned when he got the idea that downtown Little Rock's riverside needed some loving care to attract people to the park. Kumpuris and his brother, Drew, donated "Forever a Rose" to the park in 2009, just a few years after Dean Kumpuris began his Saturday walks through the park with his dog, Boris. "If it weren't for Boris, bringing him down here, a lot of this wouldn't have happened. I would take him on walks and I'd think, 'What can we do?' "

The French bulldog, now 13, has his own sculpture in the park, in the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden, a cluster of small-scale works east of the Little Rock Marriott Hotel. The bronze Boris is one of an estimated 115 sculptures located (or to be located) in the park and around Little Rock, all gifts to the city made possible by donations from individuals, family foundations and the Sculpture at the River Market Inc. nonprofit. Since 2004, close to $4 million worth of sculpture has been installed; the replacement value of the works is higher.

Within weeks, the Vogel Schwartz garden will expand into a new area going in up the slope from the original, where a road turnaround was once located. The garden is itself being sculpted, with curving Corten steel walls creating a boundary and landscaped pathways within.

Robert Vogel said his family foundation gave a donation to make the garden possible after Kumpuris came to him with "his vision." Kumpuris, who is Vogel's close friend, has no trouble asking for money to buy sculpture and make other park improvements, Vogel said with a laugh. Kumpuris himself has said that sometimes when people see him coming, they run.

Vogel also said he believes the park, officially Julius Breckling Riverfront Park, named for a former director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, should be renamed for Kumpuris.


On a recent hot Saturday morning, Kumpuris, a gastroenterologist and a Little Rock city director since 1995, was dressed in long sleeves and long pants and spraying weeds from an insecticide container labeled "Dr. DK" when this reporter met up with him in the park. "This is my job," he said as he sprayed.

You can find Kumpuris at the park every Saturday. He not only keeps the weeds down, he helped design the landscaping, chose many of the plants and has had a hand in the installation of every piece of sculpture. He knows every artist and the name of every work.

CITY DIRECTOR, WEED KILLER: Dr. Dean Kumpuris has been the prime mover in putting sculpture in Riverfront Park, where also works keeping up the grounds.Caricof's "Beginning Life" is in the background. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • CITY DIRECTOR, WEED KILLER: Dr. Dean Kumpuris has been the prime mover in putting sculpture in Riverfront Park, where also works keeping up the grounds.Caricof's "Beginning Life" is in the background.

The Arkansas Times, it should be noted, has had some critical things to say about the sculpture, particularly about the scale of the work in the Vogel Schwartz garden. The garden did not originally have the intimate setting that the small sculptures — many more appropriate for a private garden or indoors — demanded. Now, thanks to the redesign, the placement of boulders that the city hauled down from Petit Jean Mountain and plantings that have matured, the sculptures work better in its big park setting. The garden now has a hidden feel: The Corten steel "waves" that parks department planner Leland Couch designed as partial enclosures mean that "you can never see all the sculptures at one time," Kumpuris said.

Kumpuris acknowledged that "we," meaning himself and the parks department, "made a lot of mistakes" with the garden in the beginning. Part of that had to do with the size of the work: The sculptures, some just inches tall, were small enough to make off with. Vandals have been able to remove bolts, grind through bases and simply wrest parts of them away. A total of five sculptures have been stolen since 2011; three were returned by the thieves after the publicity and two were replaced. One piece, Lori Alcott-Fowler's "Conversation with Myself," a sculpture of a person bending over a smaller version of the figure, was repeatedly vandalized; it has been moved into a more visible spot and made more secure.


Kumpuris gave us a tour, starting with "Beginning Life," a marble sculpture suggesting a seed. It is one of the loveliest sculptures in the park, to this writer's eye. "This is by Kathy Caricof," Kumpuris said. "She's probably the craziest woman I've ever met," he added fondly. (Kathleen Caricof also designed the "Stars and Stripes" stainless steel sculpture in front of War Memorial Stadium, a work that the Roy and Christine Sturgis Foundation commissioned for $500,000 and which Kumpuris said gave engineers fits to construct.)

One small sculpture depicts attenuated dancers with their hair on fire (Wayne Salge's "Sizzling Sisters") and another tiny work of reclining zaftig siblings (Adam Schultz's "Sisters") — are "crazy pieces," Kumpuris said, meant to bring a smile as much as a chance to appreciate art.

The Vogel garden extension, which Kumpuris said should be complete by July, will feature flagstone paths and river rock beds meant to suggest water. A large sculpture by Jane DeDecker of children walking across a log will be placed atop boulders straddling the gravel; a crane operator worked with city employees a couple of weeks ago to position the sculpture, "Shortcut." While all the sculpture is bought by the nonprofit or donated, the city is doing all the landscaping. "We couldn't do it without city labor," Kumpuris said.

The first acquisitions for the riverfront were installed in 2004 along the park path that connects it to the Clinton Presidential Center grounds and on President Clinton Avenue. Kumpuris and others who worked to convince Bill Clinton to choose Little Rock for his library told him they would improve the park if he'd locate the library there.

"We needed to start doing something" in the park, which he described as just "big, sloping hills" at the time. "They're going to think, 'What the hell is over there?' " Kumpuris said.

"So people met on the third floor of the River Market. We said, 'Here are some sculptures we think we can put in that will make us look like we have some idea of what we're doing here.' ... We bought $300,000 to $400,000 worth of sculpture in two weeks," Kumpuris said.

Those first buys were Sandy Scott's "Presidential Eagle" (donated by Jennings Osborne) and "River Market Pig" (donated by Dean Kumpuris and the parks department); Carol Gold's "Fiesta" (donated by Dean and Drew Kumpuris, Bobby Tucker and his brother, Rett, and Wally Allen); and DeDecker's "Harriet Tubman" (donated by Peggy and Haskell Dickinson); "Anglers" (a gift of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cynthia and Bob East, Richard L. Mays Sr., Richard L. Mays Jr., Gregory Mays, Bruce Moore, Darren Peters and Darrin Williams); and "Touch the Sky" (donated by the late Bill Clark in honor of his grandchildren).

All the artists are members of the National Sculpture Guild associated with Columbine Gallery in Loveland, Colo. Kumpuris got to know gallery owner John Kinkade when he sought a memorial sculpture for his daughter, Anne, who died tragically in a train accident in Egypt in 1997, to be placed at Kumpuris' church.

The selection of out-of-state artists, which has continued, prompted some grumbling among Arkansas sculptors and others, including this writer. The Sculpture at the River Market nonprofit, which recently hosted its 11th show and sale in the River Market pavilions, used Kinkade as a paid consultant at one time, so it seemed to local artists that they weren't considered good enough by the nonprofit's sculpture committee. In 2009, the Arkansas Sculptors Guild set up a competing show and sale the same weekend of the Sculpture in the River Market show, purposely timed as a "heads-up competition," organizer David Harris said, to put the works of talented Arkansans on exhibit.

But Kumpuris said that NSG membership is not a requirement, and notes that Sculpture at the River Market has invited non-NSG members to submit work to the jurying committee for the show, and has selected several such sculptors. In 2010, the nonprofit, which collects a commission on sales at the annual event and proceeds from a ticketed preview, started buying works by Arkansas artists; now sculptors Kevin Kresse, Michael Warrick, Bryan Massey Sr. and Shelley Buonaiuto are represented there. Missing from the park: Robyn Horn, Pat Musick, Margaret Warren, Stephen Driver, John Ellis, Susan Williams, David and Bre Harris, Terry and Maritza Bean, Harry Loucks, Tod Swiecichowski ... . (Kumpuris said he'd reached out to Fayetteville sculptor Hank Kaminsky, asking him to submit work, but was turned down.)

'RETRO TREES': Sculpture by Dale Rogers in Riverftont Park. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'RETRO TREES': Sculpture by Dale Rogers in Riverftont Park.

The Times has been critical of certain works in the park, particularly "Native Knowledge," which features three mounted stone bas reliefs of Native Americans and is positioned at the Junction Bridge, where the Quapaw Line begins. Denny Haskew's sculpture is a tribute to the Quapaw, and Kumpuris said the artist consulted with the tribe for the symbols carved into the back of the stones. But an identical sculpture by Haskew is in front of the Barona Resort and Casino in San Diego, where it was said to be dedicated to the elders of the Barona Tribe, and yet another is located at a golf course.

Still, if the Quapaw are happy with "Native Knowledge," who are others to quibble about its inconstant fealty?

In fact, now that the park is full of sculpture and landscaping that appropriately sets it off, it seems petty to carp about the work. It is public art, and almost by definition that means there's never consensus about which of it is good and which is not.

Jane Rogers, president of Sculpture in the River Market Inc., said around 400 artists are invited every year to submit art to the selection committee of 23, which meets on a Sunday afternoon to see the work and hear Kumpuris talk about each artist. She said the committee tries to keep the number of artists who will appear to under 50.

For seven years, the group has awarded a $60,000 commission to one artist in the show. This year, Stephen Schactman of Colorado (but not an NSG member) won the commission for "The Arkansas A," a monolithic stylized A that will be installed at the new Southwest Little Rock Community Center.

'FOREVER A ROSE': The Kumpuris brothers donated this to the park. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'FOREVER A ROSE': The Kumpuris brothers donated this to the park.

Though it seems the sculpture in the park has reached a critical mass, Rogers said the sculpture committee's job is not done. She was mildly receptive to the idea of holding back on granting commissions for a few years so the group would have enough money to buy a work by a big-name artist that might bring people to Little Rock. OK, maybe not a multimillion-dollar Claes Oldenburg "Clothespin" or a Jeff Koons stainless steel balloon dog, but it would only take a couple of years to buy, for example, a George Segal (depending on the work).

But for now, Rogers said, the committee intends to fill in a few gaps in the park and keep buying for the rest of the city, like those placed at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, along Chenal Parkway, at the community center and War Memorial Park, in front of the Robinson Center and on Main Street.

Rogers said people do sometimes complain about certain sculptures to her, "and that's OK." But most people "see value in what we are doing: making Little Rock a better place to live. It's been proven that a city with public art is a city that cares about itself."

Late last week, Carla Wilkins of Little Rock and friends were photographing "The Ties that Bind," a sculpture of a man tying a little boy's shoe, located in a shady spot just west of the splash pad. Wilkins brought family and friends to see the sculpture.

The Saturday previous, Kumpuris had pointed to "The Ties that Bind" and said, "This is how things happen in Little Rock."

In 2012, Kumpuris related, Dale Nicholson donated the funds to buy the sculpture "Patty Cake," of a woman and child playing the game, in memory of his late wife, Patty. When Nicholson died the following year, Sculpture at the River Market Inc. bought "The Ties that Bind" to memorialize Nicholson and created a minigarden, with a retaining wall, paving and picnic tables. Kumpuris said the garden needed a little girl sculpture, and so the nonprofit added "Hulahoop" in 2014, in what is now named the Dale Nicholson Sculpture Plaza. All the work is by DeDecker.

Wilkins, sporting a sleeveless T-shirt declaring "Too Busy Being Awesome," continued down the path to Kevin Kresse's "Breaking the Cycle," a sculpture of a man being pushed in a wheelbarrow by a young boy. On our tour, Kumpuris had said Kresse would be shocked "by the number of people who come and take a picture" by "Breaking the Cycle." And there were Wilkins and friends, having their picture made around the sculpture.


People may differ in their taste in art, but all agree that the Peabody Park Splash Pad, just west of the Junction Bridge, is a super addition to the park. The splash pad, where water shoots up in various patterns, is surrounded by native rocks for climbing and rubberized landing areas, tunnels and slides. To one side is a bowl-like grassy area. A pavilion overlooks the splash pad. The water draining from the splash pad has been directed under the walkway and to the river's bank, where it flows through a swampy area of cypress and bog plants and sweet spire to a waterfall. The play area, to which Peabody Hotel Group chairman Marty Belz donated $250,000, is a far cry from the splintery pirate ship set on hot sand that once stood there.

Now, kids squeal as they splash, families picnic in a shady area up the hill and people stroll through the park and around the Marriott, and there is sculpture punctuating the way.

Some of it is whimsical, like the monocle-sporting and bumbershoot-carrying turkey "Lord Featherwick" by Herb Mignery, who did cowboy art for most of his long career but who Kumpuris said turned to quirky stuff in his 80s. Mignery also did "Ellwood," a weasel in overalls, just up the path from the turkey. Both are just under 4 feet tall. There is figurative work of both humans and animals, like "Breaking the Cycle" and Pati Stajcar's "Vixen." There are stylized human images, like Collen Nyanhongo's "Resting Angel," the face of an African woman. "Some of the work is hard-edge conceptual work, like Ted Schaal's "Open Window," a large work east of the Junction Bridge that features a huge half rectangle balanced on a small ball atop a mirror image of the rectangle above.

IN THE NEW VOGEL SCHWARTZ GARDEN: Sandy Scott's "Las Brisas." The completed garden should be open in July. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • IN THE NEW VOGEL SCHWARTZ GARDEN: Sandy Scott's "Las Brisas." The completed garden should be open in July.

Some of this writer's favorite sculptures: "Ghost at the River," a carved, abstracted bison detailed with skeletal figures donated by the Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller III and his wife; Dale Rogers' "Retro Trees," Corten and stainless steel with an Adolph Gottlieb/1950s look; DeDecker's "Patty Cake," the face of the mother reminiscent of the mother's in Picasso's "Mother and Child"; Leslie Lehr Daly's "Camdeboo," a fantasy animal with horns like tree limbs emerging from a cone-shaped head; Kevin Box's origami horses and paper airplanes in painted steel. Dee Clements' "Cat Tails" and her cranes, "Birds of Happiness," are perfect outdoor garden pieces.

Mark Leichliter's 14-foot painted work in steel, "Together," is the right scale to signal the entrance to the western part of the park and adds a bright splash of color to the splash pad area by which it stands. Timothy Nimmo's "Autumn Winds" is lovely (but is one of those small pieces that the artist likely envisioned as an indoor work). Sandy Scott's pelican, "Las Brisas," which was hidden by plant growth at the William Clark Wetlands on the Clinton Presidential Park grounds, is better placed in the new Vogel Schwartz area. Like "Together," Caricof's "Infinity," a 10-foot-tall abstraction of looping steel, is monumental, announcing to visitors that this long ribbon of a park is a place for art.

'BORIS': Where it all began, Kumpuris says: On his walks in the park with his French bulldog, Boris. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'BORIS': Where it all began, Kumpuris says: On his walks in the park with his French bulldog, Boris.

East of the Vogel Schwartz garden expansion, a portion of Riverfront Park lies under the Main Street Bridge. It's always cool there, Kumpuris said, and the bridge's supports create a nice visual as they diminish in the distance across the river. He wants seats on the slope under the bridge and lighting placed on the underside of the bridge to add to the view and create a feeling of safety. That means that one day there will be seats on the slope under the bridge and lighting placed on the underside of the bridge to add to the view and create a feeling of safety.

The city parks department has drawn up plans for a new children's play area past the hotel (Kumpuris has put the finger on someone for this, no doubt), in a neglected plaza now filled with leaves. Its outdoor musical instruments — drums and vibraphones and bells — sit forlorn on a concrete pad. A mosaic of the Riverfest logo on one wall reminds visitors of the area's earlier uses. There was once a "splash pad" here, as well, but it was merely a shallow fountain-like area that Kumpuris said wasn't connected to water. "When they wanted to fill it, they took a fire hose," Kumpuris said.

Kumpuris has his eye on more development along the riverfront, on the spit of sand and jungle just east of the Clinton pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas. A bridge has been built to the island, but it is locked while plans are made to develop the island. Kumpuris is already bushwhacking there, cutting a path through the wetland's equisetum and vines and cottonwoods. He sees children fishing from its sandy banks, making their way to the other end of the island that Kumpuris said opens up "like a cathedral."

"It will be a treasure once we get it figured out. Someone will think this is crazy, but if you want to see what life looks like ... this is Arkansas."

Returning to the River Market area and his weed-killing, Kumpuris observed, "We'll never be Crystal Bridges," referring to Alice Walton's grand Bentonville museum, where sculptures by famed artists dot the 100-acre grounds. "But we've got museums that are real quality" and Riverfront Park, with cool river breezes, splashing water and sculpture along its length, enough that visitors might stay awhile.

'HARRIET TUBMAN': Jane DeDecker's sculpture, on the Clinton Presidential Park grounds, was one of the first purchased. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'HARRIET TUBMAN': Jane DeDecker's sculpture, on the Clinton Presidential Park grounds, was one of the first purchased.

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