AK: Juneau’s Nimbus Sculpture – An Ugly Duckling Reclaims Its Throne

What’s big and green, weighs 8 tons, and is shaped like a Kleenex half-pulled from the box? Nimbus, of course.

The polarizing and controversial sculpture recently returned to the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum that’s under construction in downtown Juneau, after a 38-year history that included the piece’s provocation, banishment and eventual resurrection.

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On a recent summer morning, Bob Banghart of the state Division of Libraries, Archives, and Museums is getting his first close-up look at the partially restored Nimbus.

“Sweet! It’s just totally remarkable,” Banghart says as he walks up to the sculpture and examines a piece of restored steel. “The shift in dynamic and how it looks now.”

Banghart and Canadian sculptor Robert Murray are checking out Nimbus just before the 19-foot sculpture is moved out of a construction staging yard and returned to its permanent home.

Murray, who now makes his own home in Pennsylvania, created Nimbus in 1977 as part of a public art program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nimbus at its new home in front of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Nimbus at its new home in front of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Murray says he was inspired by the fjords and mountains around Juneau during an early visit.

“Again, not in any sort of literal sense,” Murray says. “Once you get into it, the way in which the arch is formed and how one element – there’s basically two elements to it – how one element supports the other and so on, is what kind of fascinates me about the form it takes.”

A juried panel picked Murray and the sculpture concept. They also sited the sculpture in the small round plaza in front of the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau, just across the street from the Alaska State Capitol.

Sculptor Robert Murray (second from left) directs construction workers on the placement of Nimbus at the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum on Saturday. The sculpture was lifted off the trailer and lowered into place by the excavator behind it. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Sculptor Robert Murray (second from left) directs construction workers on the placement of Nimbus at the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum on Saturday. The sculpture was lifted off the trailer and lowered into place by the excavator behind it. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

State lawmakers weren’t very happy with what they considered a Gumby-colored, oversized, exploded garbage dumpster outside their windows. Juneau residents were also divided on the sculpture.

“I didn’t like Nimbus, mainly, from the standpoint that the workmanship was real bum. I mean, there were little dents,” said late Juneau watercolor artist Rie Muñoz on “Conversations,” a television program recorded in ’80s. “The foundry, how they put it together, was very poor workmanship. So, I’m glad that it’s gone. I have no objection to art being removed if people don’t like it.”

In 1984 – six years after Nimbus was installed — legislation passed that forced Gov. Bill Sheffield to remove Nimbus from the court plaza.

Murray doesn’t take all the criticism personally, and he takes the controversy in stride. In fact, he seems to relish it.

“If you’re not rattling people’s cages a little bit, you’re failing. If suddenly the work is just welcomed and openly embraced, then that leads me to think I’m doing something wrong here,” Murray says.

Canadian sculptor Robert Murray created Nimbus in 1977. The hills of Douglas Island in the background are part of what he says inspired him during the sculpture’s creation. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Canadian sculptor Robert Murray created Nimbus in 1977. The hills of Douglas Island in the background are part of what he says inspired him during the sculpture’s creation. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Murray notes that such criticism is usually lobbed by those unfamiliar with other art forms or those who may have outdated ideas about the history of contemporary outdoor sculpture.

“It’s come a long way from the days of statuary and men on horseback usually who didn’t look like the guy they depicted. Nor did the horse look like the horse they rode. But that’s okay,” Murray says. “That kind of monumental – what I call park sculpture – that kind of statuary is something that people were used to seeing in outdoor situations.”

Murray creates stabiles, the opposite of mobiles. They’re large, stationary or rigid monochrome sculptures that imply motion or particular forms with the bending, folding, or twisting of the steel or other materials. He’s created over 60 pieces since 1959. Most have been installed in museums, galleries, and public facilities in the United States and Canada.

During Nimbus’ removal from the court plaza, as much as 4 inches of steel was left behind when the sculpture was crudely cut away and hauled off.

Robert Murray shows where the sculpture was crudely cut to move it away from the Dimond Court Plaza in 1984. It was restored this winter with new steel and new framework for the bottom. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Robert Murray shows where the sculpture was crudely cut to move it away from the Dimond Court Plaza in 1984. It was restored this winter with new steel and new framework for the bottom. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“It was just torched off following the grade, right at grade level. But that grade had quite a slope to it,” Murray says. “So, the piece was listing slightly.”

The slumping sculpture languished in a state storage yard for five years before a museum curator had the novel idea to requisition it as a “historical artifact” because it was “Alaska’s most controversial sculpture.” Nimbus was placed on the grounds of the old Alaska State Museum in 1991 and it remained there until demolition of the facility last year.

Now, after nearly four decades, perhaps Nimbus has become much more than just a simple piece of abstract art. Maybe it is historical art, or even performance art or political art. Perhaps it’s a symbol for the debate over public funding for the arts and politicians sticking their nose in the process.

“Well, yes to all of those. All of the above,” Murray says. “That was a little bit what was wrong with the controversy. It got a little bit out of hand before the piece hardly had a chance to acclimatize — for people to acclimatize themselves to the sculpture, let’s say.”

Markings from the restoration of Nimbus. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Markings from the restoration of Nimbus. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

When Nimbus was reinstalled in front of SLAM, Murray was there to orient the sculpture and make sure that you could see through the arch from the street.

Nimbus’ restoration work this summer will include sandblasting the steel and a new paint job in its original Crayola-like seafoam green color.

Murray may return again to Juneau someday. SLAM officials say they’re considering a retrospective exhibition of models he created while designing some of his most notable sculptures. Critics may be interested to know that an early concept of Nimbus featured a dark blue color, much like Gumby’s flying mermaid friend Goo.