ANNAPOLIS- From the Wildwood Trail, artist Al Zaruba’s sculpture looks like a bewitching child’s playhouse resembling an illustration from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. But the other day it looked more like a crime scene.
Yellow caution tape and an accompanying sign warned hikers to steer clear of the weathered wooden structure.
“The Sky Below, Earth Above,” was built in the fall, part of Quiet Waters Park sculpture program. Yet what started out as another of the locally renowned artist’s enormous earthy structures has turned into a gloomy debate involving religion and safety codes spurred by what Alzaruba – his artistic name – calls “cultural terrorists.”
“My work is not about antagonizing people; my work is about reaching out to people I have never met by making something fanciful and fun,” said Zaruba.
But Anne Arundel County officials don’t see it that way.
The county’s Risk Management Division thinks the structure is unsafe. According to John Marshall, chief of park operations for Anne Arundel County, the sculpture must be taken down because artworks that invite interaction from people must meet certain codes and Zaruba’s work does not.
“When you have a transition to different heights with a stairway and a deck, it has to meet certain structural codes. Our risk management office received complaints from certain citizens, and once they examined it, it was deemed unsafe,” said Marshall.
Originally, certain visitors to the park complained that the structure had pagan as well as Christian influences. Two items – a table and a bird’s nest – were interpreted by some as an altar and a crucifix. Later, the county received complaints pertaining to safety issues.
According to Michael Murdoch, superintendent of Quiet Waters Park, complaints about religious influences were not the reason officials asked Zaruba to change the structure. Zaruba himself decided to move the table to a different spot in the sculpture and take off the wooden plank attached to the birds nest.
“When I went to change it, all these people came out in support of me, telling me not to do it. It really warmed my heart,” said Zaruba.
Liz Swanson, a friend of Zaruba and visitor of the park, feels the controversy is unwarranted.
“It certainly wasn’t his intention to do anything with a particular religion, if anything it’s just spiritual,” said Swanson. “If you try to accommodate everybody’s point of view, you’re going to suck the spirit out of everything. We have to stop placating and appeasing petty tyrants.”
Murdoch started the sculpture program in the early 1990s. He says he is an avid supporter of artist creativity, but feels that safety is the main issue.
“We are an art-oriented park, so we want to continue the sculpture program. But we have to be realistic, if we create a piece that has potential to cause harm to somebody then we need to address it. There is no ulterior motive,” said Murdoch.
Murdoch and Marshall met with Zaruba on Thursday to talk about a solution. Although the sculpture will be torn down next week, Murdoch hopes to have another Zaruba sculpture in the park and asked the artist to draft a plan for his next work to avoid any safety concerns in the future.
This is not the first conflict for Zaruba and safety officials.
“Hunting Light,” a 72-foot long 14 ton wooden ship with a live tree as a mast residing in the front of the park, was torn down after safety concerns were raised in regards to rotting wood and children who had retained minor injuries while climbing it.
Zaruba remains optimistic about the situation. After all, he is a cancer survivor. He feels that he is a walking miracle after doctors gave him a one percent chance of living. “I’ve learned a lot about pain and letting go of a lot of stuff, which prepared me for this. When somebody condemns you in such a public way, with as many hours as you spend on something, you end up feeling like your naked in public. I got a miracle with my life and I expect some sort of miracle in this situation as well,” said Zaruba.