Culture News

Controversial Sculpture Moving Forward in Old Town Scottsdale

A model of John Randall Nelson's sculpture, shown during a September 2016 open house.
A model of John Randall Nelson's sculpture, shown during a September 2016 open house. Lynn Trimble
It’s been nearly two years since Scottsdale Public Art held an open house to gather community feedback on a sculpture proposed for Old Town Scottsdale.

Now they’ve finally broken ground on the project, but not without significant controversy and delays.

The sculpture is a 26-foot-tall jackrabbit designed by Tempe-based artist John Randall Nelson. It’s being placed on the northwest corner of Indian School Road and Marshall Way.

That’s because Old Town business owners asked the city several years ago to help draw people to the area, concerned about dwindling attendance at Thursday night art walks, and Bentley Gallery's move from Old Town to downtown Phoenix.

Some suggested that a significant piece of public art would catch the attention of people walking or driving through the area.

That’s just what they got, with Nelson’s giant white rabbit called One-Eyed Jack.

The design was inspired in part by Nelson's own experiences on Marshall Way, while he was a painting student at ASU, and often made the gallery rounds in Old Town. "One-Eyed Jack represents my memory of Marshall Way's history and legacy," he says.

But other factors entered into the mix, as well.

"Historically, rabbits are associated with rebirth," he says. "And then when you dig a little deeper, you find that they are contradictory, paradoxical creatures."

They're also a recurring motif in art. "They conjure thoughts of fertility, magic, transformation, intuition, the power of listening, and clairaudience."

For Nelson, One-Eyed Jack symbolizes the creative process. "Like Lewis Carroll's fictional White Rabbit, it beckons us to make the leap down the rabbit hole into Wonderland," he says.

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Rendering of Nelson's sculpture shown during Scottsdale Public Art's September 2016 open house.
Lynn Trimble
In September 2016, Scottsdale Public Art held an open house so people could review Nelson's design, and provide feedback through a written survey. Eighty-three people completed the survey, and 78 of them expressed their support.

But not everyone is happy about it.

That’s clear when you review the minutes for Scottsdale City Council meetings, and meetings for the city's development review board.

The board failed to approve the sculpture during its December meeting last year, which meant the artwork couldn’t be installed without a successful appeal at a subsequent city council meeting.

Scottsdale resident Dan Semenchuk submitted a citizens petition to the city council, asking that they halt the Nelson project. But the council declined to take action on the petition during its meeting on January 8.

City council member Virginia Korte asked the council to review the board’s decision, and that’s just what happened earlier this year.

The city council approved an updated plan for Nelson's sculpture, which includes changes to exactly where the rabbit will sit on that corner and adds height to the platform for safety reasons, on February 13.

Now installation has begun, in the face of at least one naysayer who created an anonymous Facebook page warning that the city is about to put a “Giant Humping Metal Rabbit” in Old Town. It's worth noting that Semenchuk used that exact phrase in his petition decrying the sculpture.

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Here's a look at One-Eyed Jack, while it's still a work in progress.
John Randall Nelson
“I try not to get into all that,” Nelson says.

He’d rather focus on finishing fabrication of the piece, started about a year ago after he ordered the giant sheets of steel and began cutting them out.

It’s being built at R.J. Ruff & Company in southwest Phoenix, where they’ve got the equipment needed to make and move its massive parts.

The sculpture weighs more than 20,000 pounds, so even moving its tail is a big production. Once the parts are assembled, they’ll move it outside, before adding the gigantic ears and white paint.

They broke ground on the sculpture's concrete base on July 23. But it'll be a while before people can see the giant rabbit. Just creating the base takes about eight days, and the concrete will need 30 days to cure before the rabbit gets set on top.

Scottsdale Public Art has yet to announce the official date the sculpture will be formally unveiled.

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Getting a closer look at John Randall Nelson's design.
John Randall Nelson
It’s been a long road from idea to installation.

Nelson responded to a Scottsdale Public Art call for proposals a couple of years ago, but didn’t get the commission right away.

At first it went to a Miami artist, whose design didn’t work in the designated space, so Nelson got another shot at it.

He pitched the idea of a jackrabbit, culled from an existing drawing in one of his sketchbooks. “Rabbits are a common character in my work,” he says.

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Works by John Randall Nelson previously exhibited at The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts.
Lynn Trimble
You’ll see plenty of long-ear rabbits in Nelson’s larger body of work, which also includes paintings. He’s represented by Gebert Gallery in Old Town, but also spent three years as a member of the Eye Lounge collective in downtown Phoenix.

Turns out, this isn’t his first massive sculpture. In 1998, Tempe Public Art installed a 35-foot-tall sculpture by Nelson. Located near Fifth Street and Mill Avenue, Harry Above the Crowd depicts a stilt walker.

Despite some local blowback, Nelson's rabbit design has already resulted in a new 16-foot-tall sculpture called White Fish, which was commissioned by a Montana town called Whitefish.

Of course, Nelson's focus these days is getting One-Eyed Jack over the finish line.

“I’m feeling really excited to see it all come together.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble