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Art Scene: Sculpture on the River

Dr. Dean Kumpuris at the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden with “Infinty” by Kathleen Caricof.

Photographs by Ashlee Nobel and provided by Little Rock CVB

As a gastroenterologist, Dr. Dean Kumpuris is a healer. As a civic leader and Little Rock’s vice mayor, he is a consensus builder. And, as an environmental planner, he’s a visionary who has transformed a slice of public land on the south bank of the Arkansas River.

“I wanted to honor my daughter, and the idea just grew,” he said. His teenage daughter, Anne, was killed in Egypt during a tragic train accident in 1997 while she was on a cultural study tour. Dr. Kumpuris first imagined a modest memorial at their church, but a more complex undertaking grew out of conversations with sculptors, art enthusiasts and family members.

That memorial grew into the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden and the delightful sanctuary opened in 1999. A generous donation from his friend Robert Vogel, of the Vogel Schwartz Foundation, helped kick-start the project that Kumpuris calls an “improvement to Little Rock’s parks paid for by private individuals for the betterment of all citizens.”

The terraced space is tucked just north of the Peabody Hotel, along Riverfront Park. Strolling along stone walkways, you see pedestaled works, such as the exuberant “Goddess” by Shelley Buonaiuto with its hands reaching for the heavens, and Ken Newman’s charming “Forever Ready,” a Labrador retriever seemingly springing to life. Stone outcroppings — some perfect for sitting in solitude — and banks of Cor-Ten steel set off the forged works. The innovative design team consists of City of Little Rock’s Mark Webre; landscape designer Leland Couch; and John Kinkade, founder of the National Sculptors’ Guild.

The garden, Kumpuris said, “gives people something interesting to see. It defines space. It enhances the livability of a city. All of a sudden instead of just seeing parkland, you see areas being created for very special reasons. At some basic level, it’s going to offer thought, contemplation or ‘ooh, isn’t that terrible?’ or ‘isn’t that great?’ It’s going to make people think.”

It surely inspired John Rupe, a professor at the University of Arkansas. He was roaming through the garden, examining the sculptures and snapping photos when I introduced myself and asked what he thought about the experience.
“I really like it. I was initially put off by the size of the small ones but the closer you are the bigger they are,” he said, with a smile. “I like seeing art along the waterfront. It’s a perfect place for it, and it does a lot for the city.”

Unveiled last April, Kathleen Caricof’s, “Infinity,” is the signature piece of 31 sculptures installed in the garden and along Pres. Clinton Avenue. An image of the yellow, ribbon-like steel structure serves as the new logo for The Sculpture at the River Market Invitational Show and Sale, an annual celebration in October that brings dozens of award-winning sculptors from across the United States to Little Rock. This is also the major fundraising event for the garden; proceeds are funneled back into purchasing new works and for sculpture upkeep. Forty-five artists representing a variety of styles have been selected for the fifth annual juried show, Oct. 14 through 16, during which each artist must display at least 10 pieces; last year’s event featured artwork valued at $3,500,000.

This year, for the first time, at Sculpture at the River Market, artists have the opportunity to compete for a $50,000 monumental commission, according to Jane Rogers, chairman of the Sculpture at the River Market Committee. The artists were given details about the site and asked to submit designs. Patrons attending the Preview Party, Oct. 14, will mingle with the artists, purchase artwork and cast votes for their favorites. A committee will then select a winner from the three finalists.

Artist Don Rambadt, who fashions birds out of welded bronze, copper and stainless steel, is one of the 35 sculptors hoping to secure the commission.

“What’s so cool about Sculpture at the River Market and the competition is that show attendees will vote to select the finalists. To actually have public input on a public art piece is fantastic and unique for a city. I’ve never heard of that happening,” he said.

While the Preview Party is $100 per person for dinner and the exclusive first peek; admission to the River Market Pavilions is free, Sat., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Docents will be available twice daily on Oct. 15 and 16 for the family-friendly event so visitors can learn more about the garden and the sculptures.

Jane Rogers, who links art with civic pride, said all are welcome to join the committee. “I think public art does so much for our community. It really says who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in. It enhances our city tremendously,” she said, enthused.

The event is a collaborative undertaking, sponsored by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau; Parks & Recreation; and the National Sculptors’ Guild. For more information and to purchase Preview Party tickets, call (501) 664-1919 or visit SculptureAtTheRiverMarket.com.

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