Front Street Arts
Preface & Reader Response
"Sorry some of the clumsy little monkeys fell off the objets d'art."
Harold Day, 2012
HUNT FOR STEEL
Harold Day's big black graces transmigrate into the ether.
by Jerry Murley
In a space odyssey of Darwinian scope, two geometric black sculptures leapt from the roof of Memphis City Hall in 1974 and touched down as a curiosity for developmentally challenged beings in a West Tennessee urban wilderness.
In spring 1974, Memphis sculptor Harold Day was asked to display two large black steel sculptures on the plaza in front of City Hall. The mayor was not aware of the invitation and reacted rashly – or with cold calculation – in front of the press upon seeing the sculptures.   City workers moved the sculptures to the University of Tennessee (UT) Child Development Center at 711 Jefferson Avenue. They were on exhibit there for over two years. The current operations manager says that she vividly remembers the sculptures. She says that several years after they were moved to the new building, a safety officer for the University of Tennessee at Memphis ordered them removed because several children broke away from their mothers, climbed on the art, and fell off. (Security might have called that an attractive nuisance in the legal sense; others might call it inevitable animal magnetism when primitives encounter something interesting in their environment for a change.) She says that staff members were disappointed about the decision; the abstract sculptures, they thought, were a good fit for the architecture and added outdoor points of interest to the entrance of the building.|
The sculptures were not a donation to City Hall or to UT: they were a temporary loan. City Hall and Harold Day were happy about the Child Development Center taking the loan and exhibiting the sculptures without preconditions. The Child Development Center seemed a perfect home. Management at the Center was gracious to have offered the works an exhibition space quickly after the dust-up at City Hall.  (A more complete telling of this disreputable – or miraculous – episode in Memphis history can be found in the primary sources linked below in the footnotes.)|
Though large, visible, and well publicized, the sculptures have been lost. No one seems to know or remember where they went. Mr. Day does not seek a return of the sculptures or payment for them. He, and we, just want to find out what happened to them. One hopes they are accessible for viewing and in good repair. But as far as we know, the works are missing and vulnerable, the sculptor is unknown to whoever possesses them, and the public can no longer see them.
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With typical insouciance, Mr. Day, when told of the mishaps on Jefferson Avenue, replied, "Sorry some of the clumsy little monkeys fell off the objets d'art." When asked if I might inquire further into this mystery from the past and ask others to join the search, Mr. Day likened his stance to a reply that he made to a request for a security background check years ago. In effect, he said, "Knock yourself out. I would love for someone to tell me what happened to my life."
While at Memphis State University, Mr. Day worked with Harris Sorrel. Reflecting forty years later on his career as an artist, he said, "My failure as an artist (overlooking lack of talent, persistence, or a family bankroll) was my inability to understand it as a business. A successful artist is a successful small business man, and that is a most difficult path." Mr. Day now lives in Florida.
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1. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, this is the publishing debut of this Memphis Press-Scimitar staff photo by Ken Ross. In the photograph, Harold Day is bent over at the far left. He thinks the fellow MSU arts students to his immediate right are James Duck and Marvin White, in the plaid shirt.
2. Clark Porteous enlarged on the story in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Here is a link to a clipping of the full story published on April 27, 1974. (This particular copy comes from my personal collection of papers related to Memphis history. However, Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, provided me with another digital copy as well.)
3. An editorial by my predecessor at Center City focused more sharply on the bigger issues involved in the story. Here is a link to page two of Center City, Vol. I, No. 19.
4. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, this Memphis Press-Scimitar photograph by Ken Ross clearly demonstrates the viewpoint of Memphis' mainstream media. It seems to say, "This is all a farce. What did you expect from the city hall of river town?"
5. As editor of Center City, I updated the story two years later. John F. Foster provided photographs of the sculptures on exhibition at the entry to the Child Development Center on Jefferson Avenue. Here is a link to page three of Center City, Vol. III, No. 17.