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'Three Eggs in Space': Public art that the public loves or loves to hate

By ,

It's an elephant egg.

An avocado.

A toilet seat.

A halo.

Or maybe a portal to another dimension, like in the sci-fi "Stargate" series.

What it is, really, is a 30,000-pound marble and limestone sculpture called "Three Eggs in Space." It's the latest piece of public art in Alexandria - a gift, really, from the developer of a new apartment building to his neighbors in the artsy community of Del Ray.

As for those neighbors, some simply love it. "It's become a good geographic reference point: 'Meet me at the Egg,' " said Diana Meredith. "It's a cool, unique piece."

Some put up with it. "It doesn't do anything for me, but I always notice it," said Bill Fourqurean, who runs past the piece daily. "I think it's kind of silly."

And some really hate it. "My reaction: gack," said Elizabeth Schilling.

Love it or love to hate it, ever since the 12-foot-tall structure was lowered by crane and bolted into the ground on a grassy spit of land a few months ago, it has become the talk of the town.

At dinner parties, in coffee shops, on e-mail group lists, over back fences, people can't stop talking about how the Egg reminds them of works by Georgia O'Keeffe or Henry Moore. Or how they fantasize about the damage a garbage truck could do to the already slightly tilted sculpture. Or how T.C. Williams High School students might "decorate" it as a graduation prank.

Many residents, chagrined by the sculpture's evocative shape, have taken to calling it the "Lady Part."

In short, "Three Eggs in Space" has joined the pantheon of public artworks that have gotten under the public's skin. Like a head that keeps disappearing from an Australian sculpture. Or the naked statue in Jamaica that some complained was too well-endowed. Not all public art is destined to become as beloved as the Statue of Liberty or "The Little Mermaid" in Copenhagen.

But that, said Pat Miller, chairman of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, is exactly the point. "Art is so personal," she said. "If a piece challenges people, I think it's successful. With 'Three Eggs in Space' . . . there's no in between. But it's gotten people talking. Making statements. Taking stands. And that's what art is."

Even local artists have taken opposite sides. "I love its solidness and simplicity," said sculptor Lisa Schumaier. "To me, it speaks of home, family and nurturing."

But Laurie Young, another artist, said public art should enrich, inspire, even entertain. "I don't feel that suggestive, egg-shaped cold stone structures do that for Del Ray," she said. Her teenage son has dubbed it "Epic Fail."

Because "Three Eggs in Space" sits on private land and was paid for by the developer, the city had no say in its design. Instead, there was a courtesy viewing just before its installation in June.

Stewart Bartley, developer of Del Ray Central, the apartment building, spent in the "mid-five figures" for the piece and has heard only nice things about it. "But maybe they're just being polite," he said.

This was Bartley's first experience with public art, and he fell into it by default. When his company took over the apartment project, the city had already approved plans that required the developer to install an artwork at the tip of a triangular strip of land that once housed a pizza joint and a couple of taxi companies.

Bartley had no idea what to do and said as much at his 30th high school reunion in Knoxville, Tenn. There, an old friend, Karen Bailey, an artist who made quilts and puppets as well as sculpture, said she'd like to give it a try.

She quickly nixed a proposal to sculpt a woman dressed in 1930s garb waiting for a train - a play on Del Ray's origins as one of the area's first commuter trolley suburbs.

Back in college, Bailey had made a miniature egg sculpture out of Styrofoam. The shape stuck with her. When she saw the deco curves of the building in Del Ray, she wanted to turn her college project into a full-scale piece.

"I was really responding to that location, that point, and how visible it would be, how much foot traffic, traffic, signs," she said. "I wanted to create something still. Quiet. Centering."

Bailey, a fan of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, some of whose most famous works are egg-shaped, said the sculpture is both representational - it depicts three actual eggs - as well as expressive of the feminine. "And I just love eggs," she said.

Where, exactly, are the three eggs? One is the sand-blasted Tennessee gray marble at the base, Bailey explained. The other is the smaller, pink marble oval shape in the middle of the piece. And the third is the space created by the larger white limestone oval.

So the white oval is not an egg?

"No," she said. "I call that the doughnut."

Three Eggs and a Doughnut?

Bailey, who now lives in Colorado, said she wants people to "participate" with the Egg, climb on it, sit in it, have their photo taken with it. Far from taking offense, she's thrilled with the swirl of controversy around her work. "Even negative comments are good," she said. "That means people are paying attention."

She has been surprised by what people see in the Egg. A dinosaur eyeball. A teardrop. A woman with her arms raised. Even the lady part. "I wrote my master's thesis in philosophy on how meaning in art comes from the artist's intentions," she said. "But I realize my intentions are only the beginning. They're a snowball, and the snowball is rolling down the hill and all these meanings are becoming a part of it."

Weighing in at 15 tons, the Egg isn't going anywhere, so the anti-Egg camp is slowly coming to terms with it. Hallie Wilfert, who drives by often, has found a way to cope.

"Now that I know its name, every time I see it, I say, 'Eggss inn Spaaace!' Just like the old Muppets' 'Pigs in Space,' " she said. "I have come to really like it. It amuses me every time I see it."

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