Ever driven, biked, walked or otherwise moved past the big black sculpture at Austin’s 29th St. and North Lamar? Well if you’re still driving, biking, walking or otherwise moving, now is the time to go see it in person, up close and personal — just you know, not too personal.
The massive work is called “Mystic Raven,” (1983) and was made by David Deming, former University of Texas art faculty member and administrator, now retired president of the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Like its namesake, the work has migrated throughout the city. It was originally installed downtown at the corner of Eighth Street and Congress Avenue in the courtyard of what was then called First City Centre. Later, in the 1990s, it moved to the lower grounds of what was then called Laguna Gloria Art Museum, now the Contemporary Austin.
Then in 2017, the sculpture was once again deinstalled and, together the artist, the Contemporary Austin and Pease Park Conservancy agreed to relocate it to what Heath Riddles of Pease Park Conservancy tells me is “affectionately referred to as Lamar Terrace.” The move was part of the Contemporary’s Museum Without Walls program.
Lamar Terrace offers a suitable space and a variety of vantage points. Looking towards the intersection, its urban context (mainly signs and telephone wires) comes into play. Viewed from the opposite direction one gets more natural setting, maybe even some with greenery.
While the grass was a little leggy on the day I visited, there’s distinct textural contrast between foliage and the sculpture’s finished surface. (Riddles tells me the city mows every 21 days, so that contrast may change soon.)
In a phone conversation Deming, who lives in Ohio, told me that when he received the commission, his downtown client wanted something colorful. When conservation plans and its last relocation came about, he saw it as an opportunity. “I thought now’s the time to paint it, because I’d always wanted it black.”
Slicker, sleeker and more modern, the black certainly evokes the idea of a raven, maybe even its oily waterproof feather coating.
The sculpture’s scale is impressive. At 22-feet and 12,000 pounds, it towers over park visitors and is hard to miss.
I asked the artist about how one fashions something so large and he told me, “Well I used to have to do most of my major welding work at (UT) on holidays and at night, but when I got this commission, the developers of the property agreed to let me use another empty warehouse they owned. The project took me about four months. I even had to build a hoist and everything, but I did it all myself.”
Standing on three durable steel legs, and possessing elements of machine aesthetic, “Mystic Raven” manages to convey movement, especially in the upper portions, where wavy shapes suggest wings in flight. While the artist also is known for representational figures, his abstract style — a blend of hard-edge and organic — evolved, curiously out of a series of unfavorable reactions to other works.
For example, while David Smith’s welded “Cubi” series was all the rage when Deming was in art school, he rejected Smith’s simplicity and rigid geometry. Deming liked British heavyweight, Henry Moore but became frustrated with the limits of Moore’s sculptural language as well. One day Deming thought, “I wonder if I could use more hard edge forms but have them move more organically? In a way, my combined responses to those two artists motivated me most to find my own voice.”
By the 1980s bird imagery crept into Deming’s work in an abstract way and “Mystic Raven” became a monumental iteration of that. The artist used the bird as a metaphor for the mass influx of people to Austin that characterized the early 1980s. And he described reading an article about “how often birds would walk around in shallow waters in a lake and fly off and sometimes fish eggs would cling to their feet and they would land in another lake and fish eggs would hatch there.”
The idea of transporting life, paralleling his family’s recent move from Ohio to Austin, struck him as meaningful. Secondly, he said, “there were just so many grackles, crows and ravens common to large cities — and birds flocking around Austin, that it made a lot of sense.”
Since the sculpture was first created, the city’s growth and development have soared. Locals and tourists take selfies at spots such as “Mystic Raven” (when there are tourists, that is). And while we find ourselves now more isolated from each other, perhaps a brief sojourn to see the artwork can conjure the mystic, and provide a moment of insight, contemplation or connection to something larger than ourselves.
“Mystic Raven” is within Pease Park at the intersection of 29th Street and N. Lamar Blvd.