Athens and the University of Georgia share a history richly saturated in art and, usually, art appreciation. But, as a notable Athens moment proves, this has not always been the case. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Iron Horse, one of the most infamous artistic disasters in both UGA and Athens history.
On May 25, 1954, Chicago artist Abbott Pattison's large iron sculpture, depicting an abstracted horse, was revealed on the quad outside of Reed Hall. The sculpture was one of five that the art department had commissioned Pattison to create for the university's campus (the first in this series, "Mother and Child," is still on display behind the Fine Arts building).
The very night the horse was installed, mischievous UGA students immediately began the work of defacing it. They shoved hay in its mouth, dropped manure around it, vandalized it with paint, and eventually lit a fire underneath it. Art, especially modern art, was a new focus at the university at this time, and many thought the delinquent behavior was a response to its introduction on campus. Others attributed it to negativity toward the artist himself. Pattison had written an article in the Red & Black (UGA's student newsaper), shortly before the installation of the Iron Horse, criticizing what he viewed as substandard academics and the student body's lack of appreciation for culture. In either case, the students had a perfect target for some personal expression.
Unsurprisingly, when Pattison found out about the destruction and disrespect he was both insulted and infuriated. He complained to publications such as the Atlanta Journal, saying, "I wanted Athens, Ga., to have a piece of sculpture to look at. And I think the least I could have expected, even if they didn't like it, was a little Southern courtesy." Word about the incident spread quickly, with publications such as Time Magazine reporting the story and interviewing Pattison.
Only a few days after the horse was unveiled, it was quietly taken into hiding. Four years later, in 1958, a university professor of horticulture named L.C. Curtis offered to take the horse to his farm, where it could be viewed by people driving by on the road. The horse would still be considered university property, but it would be out of the way from pranksters until the university decided it wanted it back on campus. Although the idea of returning the sculpture to UGA property has been discussed on occasion over the years, it has remained in Watkinsville with the Curtises.
In honor of this piece of local history, the Georgia Museum of Art and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives will co-host a free screening of the 1980 documentary "Iron Horse," directed by Atlanta filmmaker Bill VanDerKloot. The event, which starts at 4 p.m. and will be held in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries auditorium, as part of UGA's 2014 Spotlight on the Arts, includes interviews with alumni who were involved in the incident and will end with a discussion with VanDerKloot, Lamar Dodd School of Art faculty and Georgia Museum of Art staff.
Sources: OnlineAthens, Roadside America, Brown's Guides