NEWS-Huja's vision: Art to honor sister cities

A proposed sculpture to commemorate Charlottesville's sister cities could lead to something more like sibling bickering around town.

"It's to celebrate the relationship between the communities," says retired city strategic planner Satyendra Huja of the sculpture he designed. Huja describes the piece– which he wants to be displayed in front of City Hall– as two figures representing "loving" sisters. He says local stone sculptor Jeff Thruston will carve the figures out of Nelson County soapstone.

No one can argue that Huja, the subject of the Hook's July 1, 2004 cover story, "Hujavision: The 'urban turban' plans his escape," hasn't already left an indelible mark on the city. During his three decades as a city planner until his 2004 retirement, he pushed for the bricking of the Downtown Mall, the creation of the Greenbelt Trail along the Rivanna, and the renovation of Court Square, as well as supporting public art through a variety of programs. 

But his latest plan has irked some locals who say he's pushing his own design at the public's expense.

"If we're going to do some sort of sculpture, then everybody in the city ought to have an opportunity to compete," says Tom McCrystal, a Republican who ran for a Virginia House seat in 2004.

"I'm not one of those people who think the government shouldn't have any sort of role in art and making things beautiful," McCrystal says. But he adds that Charlottesville "spends money on stupid stuff," citing among other things the multi-million dollar transit center and the newly redesigned city website that cost $58,000.

"No one pays that much for a website anymore," says McCrystal.

The estimated price tag for Huja's proposed sculpture is $15,000, including base and installation, and would be part of a global initiative– of sorts– using art to tie Charlottesville to its sister cities, Pleven, Bulgaria; Besancon, France; and Poggio a Caiano, Italy. 

Two years ago, Huja designed a similar sculpture of two female figures for Pleven. That sculpture– funded through private donations and by the Pleven local government– was created by a Bulgarian sculptor out of white marble. Huja hopes Charlottesville's other sister cities will follow suit by creating variations of his design using sculptors and materials from their countries.

But while Huja and others are drawn to the symbolism of the sculptures, others are less thrilled with the artistic merit of the piece planned for Charlottesville.

"It's really ugly, so it'll fit right in with the collection of mismatched, bizarre architectural nightmares that are already in front of City Hall," rants public watchdog and frequent city critic Kevin Cox, who likens a computer rendering of Huja's sculpture to two walruses rather than two sisters.

 "I think there are better uses for the money," he says. "The police could use some money; the sidewalks could use some money."

For most expenditures, the City must open the project to applicants and put a job out for bids. But art, says Huja, is a different animal.

"It's okay to 'single source' it," he says.

Art in Place founder Elizabeth Breeden agrees. She says part of the issue is that there aren't that many local sculptors who could undertake the stone carving.

Thruston, she says, is "very competent," and was willing to work from Huja's rendering rather than create a work from scratch, something to which some sculptors might not agree, she says.

But sculptor and metalworker Robert Bricker says that if public funds are used, all artists should have been given the chance to compete.

"As far as Huja," Bricker says, "I consider him to be one of the most honorable men." But despite that high regard, Bricker says if the city hands over thousands of dollars to one artist without giving others the opportunity to compete, it's "not fair."

"I'm not speaking in terms of greediness for sculptors, " he clarifies, "but for the overall best product for the city."

City manager Gary O'Connell, who helped establish an ad hoc art review committee for Huja's sculpture, says government funds may not even be needed.

"I think there's some hope, at least on my part and Huja's part," O'Connell says, "that the publicity might encourage people to step forward and help with the funding."

The ad hoc committee includes a retired UVA art professor, a Board of Architectural Review member, and landscape architect Syd Knight.

The committee "didn't have the authority to formally approve it," says Knight, "but we offered input and suggestions."

Margot Smith, curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and head of the Piedmont Council of the Arts, says the committee suggested making the sculpture larger and "more dynamic" than the original plan.

She supports the design Huja and Thruston presented to the BAR, which voted unanimously on Tuesday, October 17, to approve the design.

"It's not going to offend anybody," Smith says. "It will attract interest. I think it will say a lot about our area and our relationship to other cities throughout the world."

Thruston says he's "taking a pay cut" on the project, which he estimates will take three or four months to complete. Breeden, whose late husband, David, created seven or eight stone sculptures around town, including one in front of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on High Street, confirms that $15,000 for a large stone sculpture is a "bargain." 

Thruston says he has already obtained one large piece of soapstone for the smaller figure, at a cost of $1,000. And he's in the process of selecting the larger piece of stone, which he estimates will cost $2,500.

The only stone left unturned, it seems, is City Council, which must approve the sculpture before it can be installed. The issue is not yet on Council's agenda, but they will hear the matter sometime in the next several weeks.

Like Huja and O'Connell, Breeden hopes City Councilors will see the potential for a sculpture like this to transcend distance and culture.

"This is a connection to the our sister cities," she says. "That's an effort worth the time."

This computer rendering shows Huja's design of two sisters. The sculpture, which will commemorate Charlottesville's three sister cities, is proposed for a spot in front of City Hall.

Satyendra Huja hopes to leave one more indelible mark on Charlottesville with his proposed sculpture.

Stone carver Jeff Thruston stands with the piece of soapstone that will eventually become the smaller of the two sisters.



Who gave Huja a license to make art? And who gave Kevin Cox a license to complain?

I don't need a license to complain and Huja can call himself an artist if he feels like it. It's a free country. You got a problem with that?

The Hook called me up and asked me what I thought and so I told them. I know that many people agree with me that this "art" is a waste. I am grateful for the chance to express what I know many other people feel in spite of anonymous attacks like yours, "SnapPeas4ever".

Greetings from Pleven, Bulgaria! It was strange to learn from a publication in USA that my hometown has a "sister" overseas. And even more - before I read this I didn`t know that an American artist made a sclupture for Pleven, financed by our local government... I promice you to find the sclupture:-)

Hello Boby,
How nice of you to post and to join our conversation! When you do find the sculpture could you please also let us know how much it cost? You might get some help from the City of Charlottesville in your search. If you need any assistance finding web pages or email addresses please let me know.

I have nothing against the idea of sister cities. I do think that the money could be spent in better ways to actually help the people (and not just the jet setting government officials )of Pleven, Besancon, Charlottesville and all the others get to know each other. What good is a sister city statue if you can't find it and the people in the city know nothing about their sister city?

Kevin Cox

I was wondering if you could send me some advice to my email. I am creating a sculpture out of wire. It's a body made up of wire and fake flowers. I want to know if you have any suggestions on how to go about creating this object. Please let me know!