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Ars gratia Dix

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Public art in the Raleigh government complex reached a modest apotheosis recently with the installation of "A Return to Community," a collaborative piece of environmental art that presented 158 linen pup tents as icons of the lost beds anticipated at Dorothea Dix Hospital in the next year.

The tents were gracefully spread through the memorial garden just behind the Archives building at Lane and Wilmington streets. They were nestled around a permanent piece of public art, Jim Galluci's red steel sculpture, whose friendly angles are beloved by the groups of climbing school children who lunch here on field trips each week. The tents were mostly anonymous off-white rectangles, but several were made of bright quilts, presenting a personal element in this highly effective mix of esthetics and political statement.

The clean, organized, luminary effect created by the array stood in complementary stead of the grimy hidden nesting sites each one implied. "Coming to your neighborhood soon," promised the documentary poster.

Public art has certainly had its ups and downs in central Raleigh. I never understood the acrimony surrounding the "Light Tower" on Capital Boulevard, whose spectral variations served up a magical greeting to the sun each morning commute with my elementary age children. My daughter is 14 now, and she was entranced by the linen tents and was ready to write letters to her legislator about the fate of Dix and its spectacular oak grove. Right around the corner from the tent installation is the crowning masterpiece of Raleigh's public art, the "Education Wall" by the late Vernon Pratt. A major part of this montage is a wonderful quote from Fred Chappell about children being "suitable to be awed."

As we seek to judge (or better accept) the efforts of public art, we should all stay open to that piece of us that is ready for awe. You never know when surprising beauty will set up camp right in your backyard.

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