Kids, critics crowd around Fred Rogers statue



Amy Mee wasn't standing in front of the new Fred Rogers statue for long yesterday before she was interrupted by her 6-year-old daughter Sarah.

"Take a picture of me sitting on his lap," said Sarah, bouncing with excitement. "I can fit there."

In the days since its unveiling last week on the North Shore, the bronzed Mr. Rogers has been mobbed with children climbing over his arms, legs and lap. Older "children" in their 20s, 30s and 40s have stopped by, too, smiling for cell phone pictures in front of the statue and immediately e-mailing them to friends.

But in the last few days, the statue has also drawn its share of attention that's considerably less neighborly.

On the Friday episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the host first professed his love for the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" television show and then quipped that the statue "made the nicest man in the world look like a mud monster."

The nearly 11-foot-high, 7,000-pound statue is crafted in the distinctive, choppy style of sculptor Robert Berks, who also sculpted the likeness of Mayor Richard Caliguiri on Grant Street. Mr. Rogers was an admirer of Mr. Berks' work, said his wife, Joanne, and frequently visited his statue of Albert Einstein in Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Rogers said that she was extremely pleased by the statue and the memorial, and felt that her husband would be as well. "I love it," she said, noting that her only regret was that Mr. Berks, 87, was not well enough to attend the unveiling.

Michael Strueber, executive director of the Colcom Foundation and director emeritus of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, called the Mr. Rogers memorial "daring, difficult and just dazzling" in his remarks during Thursday's unveiling ceremony.

The Colcom Foundation is funding the maintenance of the statue, which was commissioned by the late philanthropist and Rogers family friend Cordelia May.

But others in Pittsburgh's art world haven't been so charitable.

Over the last couple days, a robust discussion has broken out on the Facebook page of Pittsburgh Filmmakers Executive Director Charlie Humphrey, who harshly criticized the statue.

Tom Sokolowski, director of the Warhol Museum on the North Side, also expressed dismay over the statue. "More than anything else, it doesn't look beckoning and warm," he said. "I don't think this bespeaks him. The statue doesn't resemble him at all."

Nearly every public art project brings with it some degree of criticism, of course, as experts and everyday onlookers give their opinions. Some projects, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., received considerable criticism initially before becoming accepted and even beloved over time.

And for visitors to the Tribute to Children site yesterday, enthusiasm far outweighed skepticism.

Megan Howard, 30, of Duquesne, had made a special trip to see the statue, walking to the North Shore from her classes Downtown at the Vet Tech Institute. She grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" every day, she said, and excitedly sent a picture of the statue to her brother via cell phone. "It looks just like him," she said, pausing as her brother texted back.

"He said he likes it," she said, smiling.

Nancy Mehalic, owner and director of the Montessori School for Creative Learning in Moon, wasn't so sure. "You have to look really hard to see his image in the sculpture," she said, as two 5-year-olds from her school climbed onto Mr. Rogers' lap.

Still, she praised it as inviting to children and called Mr. Kimmel's criticism "rude -- he's not from here."

Ms. Mee, of McCandless, didn't see much resemblance either. But watching her four children and two nephews immediately run to the statue, running their hands over the rough bronze and hanging onto Mr. Rogers' hands and feet, it didn't really matter.

"I'm glad they did something to remember him," she said. "It's so kid-friendly."


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published November 11, 2009 5:00 AM


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