VISITATION PARK — At the City Museum, on Cherokee Street, and next to his home in the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood, the artwork of Bill Christman has long made people turn their heads and take notice. Now Christman hopes that a new and monumental display of his hyper-kitschy artwork in a heretofore vacant lot at Cabanne Avenue and Union Boulevard will do more than turn bewildered heads.
Last week, Christman was in the final stages of closing on the purchase of a vacant 1½ acre lot at the southwestern corner of Union and Cabanne from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). He tentatively plans to call it “The Land of Giants,” and fill it with such works of art as a gigantic ice cream cone, his 65-foot “World’s Tallest Robot”, a soda fountain and malt shop for kids and a farm produce stand.
“We’re going to have trees and bushes that bear fruits and nuts for kids,” he said.
In a ceremonial cleansing of the land, Christman is inviting one and all to a bonfire on the property from 7-10 p.m. on April 27. Last week, he said he was working on lining up a gospel singer to provide entertainment.
In addition to being a cleansing of the ground, it will be a celebration of the election of Shameem Clark Hubbard as the new 26th Ward Alderman.
“I have a very sentimental, heartfelt attachment to this neighborhood,” Christman said. He noted that the style of the homes attest that the area was a prosperous Jewish neighborhood from the 1920s to the 1940s.
He grew up on Cabanne from 1947 to 1954, attended the Clark School nearby, checked books out of the Cabanne Branch of the St. Louis Public Library and took art lessons at the nearby Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
There was also a drug store where he could slurp sodas and a Will Rogers Movie Theater.
“I love this neighborhood. I want to see this neighborhood prosper,” Christman said.
Working with Christman on the project are Tim and Beth Kiefer. They call the venture Partners in Articulture LLC.
One person who supports the project is former St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Deb Peterson.
“Bill may have changed, but he never left the child in him behind. He’s also never given up on believing in the power of beauty to transform the dreary and miserable,” said Peterson in an introductory document given out to neighbors. “Bill wants to bring energy and excitement to streets pockmarked by neglect and rimmed by empty buildings.”
Christman brings to the project a long association with the City Museum and its founder, Bob Cassilly. He was responsible for Beatnik Bob’s Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem at that museum. His works of artistic genius at City Museum include a bust of a boy’s head with a pair of men’s underwear on it.
At the northwest corner of Jefferson Avenue and Cherokee Street stands an oversized statue of a Native American chief that Christman sculpted. Around his home are dozens of his creations, including a giant-sized chicken and two legs with nothing above the belt level. On the first floor of the two-story building where he and his wife live is Joe’s Cafe, a tacky small concert venue.
A major goal of many of his projects is humor, but Christman had something else in mind for his current endeavor.
“I think it’s very important to me that St. Louis become a great racially tolerant city,” he said. At this point in his life, he considers his sculpture garden a contribution to that effort.