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The story behind Canal Park's most unusual sculpture

"Man, Child & Gull" turns 30 this year. Sterling Rathsack's bronze was one of several pieces commissioned to enhance Duluth's tourist hub.

Canal Park public art.
“Man, Child and Gull” by Sterling Rathsack Jr., bronze, 1992.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "Man, Child & Gull" was never meant to be approached from behind.

"It was basically intended," remembered sculptor Sterling Rathsack, "to face the street." As Canal Park visitors approached the grassy hill in front of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center, they'd see a bronze likeness of a man and child playing with one of the ubiquitous gulls. "I knew that people would probably have their kids sit on the knees and things like that," said Rathsack.

The spot where Rathsack's sculpture was intended to be placed was given to Richard Salews' large "Determined Mariner." That meant "Man, Child & Gull" ended up right in the stream of pedestrian traffic on the west side of Canal Park Drive, just south of the clock tower marking the entrance to the Duluth Downtown Waterfront District.

Canal Park public art.
“Determined Mariner” by Richard Salews, bronze, 1992.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Visitors walking north along Canal Park Drive, away from the lake, are now confronted with the backside of a man popping a squat on top of a mooring bollard. It's not the most flattering angle.

"The awkwardness of the back kind of contradicts the principles of sculpture," said Rathsack. Ideally, he noted, sculptures are supposed to have an equal visual impact from every angle. "But you sacrifice principle for functionality, or just the basic impact of the piece."

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Thirty years ago, Rathsack wasn't in a position to be picky with respect to placement; he was happy to receive a rare commission for a large-scale sculpture. "Monumental sculpture is really competitive," said Rathsack. "A lot of people start and they go to art school and they want to do big things, but they do a few public artworks and they go into teaching. Like I did."

The artist has taught at Fond du Lac Community College in Cloquet since 2006. He also still sculpts, and paints, in the same Superior studio where he made "Man, Child & Gull." He was the only local artist selected for the Canal Park Public Arts Project, which spent a total of $223,000 to commission seven pieces that were installed in the early 1990s.

"Mine was $20,000 or something like that," said Rathsack. "You couldn't cast (the sculpture) for twice that now."

Standing near the maritime museum as he was conceiving his sculpture, Rathsack watched families feeding gulls — and he saw those gulls land on the head of what was then Canal Park's most prominent sculpture.

Statue of aged man sitting on low wall, with wide-brimmed hat in the style of a Union soldier from the American Civil War sitting next to him on his left.
A statue of First Minnesota veteran Albert Woolson now sits in front of the St. Louis County Depot, where it was moved in 2004 after spending decades in Canal Park.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Albert Woolson, last surviving veteran of the Civil War, died in Duluth in 1956. A statue of the centenarian now sits in front of the Depot, but until 2004, the sculpture was situated in Canal Park. "The seagulls all sat on his head," said Rathsack, "which caused a whitewashing of his face in streaks, which was pretty undignified."

Canal Park public art.
Detail of “Man, Child and Gull” by Sterling Rathsack Jr., bronze, 1992.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Hoping a bronze gull topper would keep actual birds from perching there, Rathsack achieved what he calls a "totemic sort of effect" with the gull perched on the head of a child, who was herself perched on the shoulders of a man squatting on a bollard. The sculpture took on a poignant new resonance in 2009, when a Two Harbors man told the News Tribune that he and his late son had struck a similar pose — complete with seagull — while Rathsack was people-watching.

Rathsack worked at the Duluth Children's Museum when he was creating "Man, Child & Gull," and the artist enlisted a museum colleague to pose for the adult figure. "He squatted on top of a stand up in my studio, under a skylight," said Rathsack. "He didn't have to do it for hours at a time, but he certainly had to go, like, half an hour at a stretch." There was also a real-life model for the child, but Rathsack didn't need the man and child to pose together; the sculptor worked from photos and drawings of the young girl.

The artist only sculpted the human and avian figures. The base of the sculpture is an actual mooring bollard that was already in the city's possession. "In retrospect," said Rathsack, "with the right amount of financing, we should have had a bronze bollard made." 30 years later, though, the figures remain securely attached to the cast iron base.

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Duluth's diligent maintenance efforts have kept all the Canal Park sculptures in excellent condition. "The city's been real good about keeping the patina clean, and it was just washed in wax," said Rathsack about his piece. In other cities, "a lot of sculptures are ignored," leading to conspicuous degradation.

In 2011, the Duluth Budgeteer reported on that year's cleaning of Rathsack's sculpture ("this whimsical trio is very popular with visitors"), with a conservation team spotting "many gum and food stains, small spots of graffiti, and especially worn spots where people stand on it for photos."

Canal Park, and the Twin Ports generally, have come a long way since 1992, said Rathsack. The same week "Man, Child & Gull" was picked up for casting, Superior's infamous "Toxic Tuesday" benzene spill forced the evacuation of 30,000 people.

A grey-haired man wearing eyeglasses, an olive checked button-down shirt, and a gray vest stands in front of a group of small white sculptures of stylized nude standing female figures.
Artist Sterling Rathsack, photographed in his Superior studio Aug. 12.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Rathsack remembers when what is now Canal Park contained industrial waste dumps. The way the area has transformed is "pretty amazing," he said. "That was a great turnaround for the city."

The artist is pleased to know that his piece remains popular with visitors, but Rathsack steers clear of the now-crowded tourist area during peak season. "I never go down there in the summer," he said. "I wouldn't go there until Christmas, probably."

Canal Park public art.
“Spirit of Lake Superior” by Kirk St. Maur, bronze, 1992.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Canal Park public art.
Detail of “Great Lakes Medallions” by Cynthia Harper, ceramic, concrete and bronze inlay, 1993.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Canal Park public art.
“Duluth Legacy” by Donna Dobberfuhl, brick (ironstone), 1992.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Canal Park public art.
A section of “Fountain of the Wind” by Douglas Freeman, bronze, stainless steel and glass, 1993.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Short cuts

We may have established the proper name of the "Northland murder thistles" I wrote about in last week's column. A Facebook friend, recognized them as bull thistles, an invasive species that the University of Minnesota Extension site recommends I report to the Department of Natural Resources. My sister, who visited this week, agreed the thistles need to come down. "I don't know if I'd encourage those," she said warily. OK, I'll clip them ... just as soon as I can get my hands on a very long pair of shears.

An overhead photo of a small wooden building containing ax throwing lanes. A rope course with various obstacles is visible overhead.
Silver Bay's new ax throwing lanes are situated beneath a rope course.
Contributed / North Shore Adventure Park

Blacklist Brewing is about to get a little more competition, but not for beer. This week, North Shore Adventure Park in Silver Bay is opening six ax throwing lanes in a dedicated structure right underneath the park's high ropes course. "The sport is easy to learn and addictive," said venue president Alice Tibbetts in a statement. "It is gratifying to just throw the ax; it's even more fun when guests realize they can hit the bullseye pretty quickly." There's a ceremonial ribbon cutting on Thursday morning — but will the ribbon be cut with a giant scissors, or a flying ax?

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I've been flashing back to the untroubled set of "Merry Kiss Cam" while watching "Irma Vep," the new HBO Max series about a troubled auteur adapting a 1910s silent film serial into a TV show. It's written and directed by Olivier Assayas, who made a 1996 movie, also called "Irma Vep," about a troubled auteur adapting that same silent film into a movie. It's all extremely meta, but still less confusing than the "Stranger Things" season four finale.

I don't know about Olivier Assayas, but Rene Vidal — the fictionalized director of the "Irma Vep" show-within-a-show — wouldn't last five minutes trying to film a scene in a Duluth hotel lobby, with tourists accidentally stumbling into shots. "Merry Kiss Cam" director Lisa France handled it with aplomb.

Like many holiday films, the feature was shot in the summertime. Yes, that meant making fake snow — in Duluth.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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