Visitors to the new courthouse in downtown Nashville may only arrive with court matters, but some leave feeling inspired by the work of Leo Friedlander, the mid-century artist known for his prominent public commissions .
Two plasterboards at either end of the sixth floor corridor of the Fred D. Thompson US Courthouse and Federal Building are scale models of never-completed granite reliefs Friedlander designed in 1950 to flank the entrance of the Estes Kefauver Federal Building and Courthouse Annex in Nashville. The plasterboard lay long forgotten in the depot of the old federal building until they were rediscovered in 1989. They have been restored and are now housed in the new Fred D. Thompson building which opened in May.
Several new courthouses commissioned in recent years as a result of a $948 million investment by Congress are also receiving an aesthetic touch thanks to the federal government’s Art in Architecture program. Executed by the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency responsible for the construction of courthouses and other federal buildings, the program allows for museum-quality artworks to be displayed in locations frequented by the public “to create an enduring cultural legacy for the nation.” to accomplish”. says the GSA.
“At best, public art projects in courthouses invite those walking on or through the courthouse to stop and reflect on that art. It can bring a smile or bow your head,” said US District Judge Jeffrey J. Helmick, chair of the Judiciary Conference’s Space and Facilities Committee. “The projects can reflect the history and character of the region. You can honor the identity of the community in a way that makes its residents proud. And they can tie a federal building to the local parish in which it is located.”
Artists are selected from a National Artist Registry, a database of American artists who have submitted samples of their work, which is reviewed by panels of experts for possible selection. Artists receiving commissions work with the building architects and others on a collaborative design team to integrate the artwork into the overall plan for a building. The program is funded by allocating half of 1 percent of a project’s estimated construction cost to the arts.
The Friedlander installation in Nashville is steeped in local history and significance. At one end of the corridor, a wall-sized relief titled State Pride depicts major industries in Tennessee, with a factory on the left and a hydroelectric power plant on the right. The accompanying panel at the opposite end of the corridor depicts the allegorical figure of Justice enthroned above an idyllic landscape, with the dome of the US Capitol in the background.
Friedlander was a sculpture professor at New York University who designed 1939 radio and television reliefs for Rockefeller Center and the two 1951 solid bronze sculptures entitled Valor and Sacrifice, depicting the ancient Roman god of war on horseback at the entrance to the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington , DC
A visually spectacular second installation at the Nashville Courthouse is incorporated into the soaring dome that is the first thing people notice when entering the courthouse. Artist Alyson Shotz designed a mosaic for the dome ceiling of the undulating folds in the robes of Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice, often depicted in flowing robes in classical sculpture and oil paintings. The mosaic consists of millions of separate pieces of glass arranged side by side to create the image of Lady Justice’s robes.
District Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger, who was involved with the courthouse project, said: “Visitors are immediately enveloped by the mosaic in the Rotunda as they enter the new space, which embodies the aim on the Rotunda’s terrazzo floor, ‘To administer equal justice to the poor and to the rich.’”
Other recent art installations in new courthouses also seek to integrate civic meaning and familiar concepts into the American justice system.
San Antonio, Texas
Laredo-born artist Thomas Glassford designed two hanging sculptures for the courthouse in Texas’ Western District, one on the outside of the building and one inside, both visible through a floor-to-ceiling window. The exterior work is an abstract sculpture in gilded bronze and the interior work consists of a series of colorful glass shapes cascading down from the atrium ceiling. Taken together, they represent the scales of justice.
A second work by the artist is a large mural in the atrium, a central meeting place in the new courthouse. Glassford used current and historical maps of streets and waterways in the San Antonio area as inspiration for the abstract painting. The courthouse borders San Pedro Creek, the source for 45 miles of man-made irrigation canals that fueled the growth of San Antonio, known for its downtown River Walk.
District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who helped direct the courthouse project, said the inclusion of the city’s famous waterways in the play spoke to him of “making justice flow like rivers of justice.”
Rodriguez likes the idea that the mural sits just below the jury meeting area, creating an allegory of justice flowing from the jury to the people seeking justice in court. The mural and sculptures also add some much-needed color to the interior, he said.
“Courthouses can often be intimidating places,” he said. “Adding art elements can make the courthouse feel more inviting and approachable. The mural adds vibrancy and color to the space while still being respectful and meaningful to the community the courthouse serves.”
Charlotte, North Carolina
The Charles R. Jonas Federal Building has undergone a major renovation and the addition of an annex to the 1918 building is expected to be completed this fall. Brooklyn-based artist Ellen Driscoll created a seven-panel mosaic for the annex building’s exterior, with each panel depicting historically significant aspects of life in North Carolina’s Western District.
There are depictions of a US coin office, a mailman, children at school, and a military recruiting center where a soldier is shown saluting an American flag. A garland chain appears at the top of each plate, serving to unite the seven parts into a single story of the region anchored by Charlotte.
“The seven mosaics are amazing, and they are especially beautiful when illuminated at night,” said Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., the court’s building renovation and project judge. “I think it will become an iconic part of the city.”
Greenville, South Carolina
Artist Joyce Kozloff created a work that celebrates the history of map making and the history of Upstate South Carolina as a center of textile production in the United States. Her suite of 17 ceramic tiles and glass mosaic panels features today’s Google Earth aerial photographs of textile factories. At the top of each card, the artist painted a textile pattern made at the mill. The cards are combined with textile artworks traditionally handmade by women in the region, such as B. Quilts from the 19th century.
The integration of artworks into public spaces dates back to the mid-19th century, when murals and sculptures were commissioned for federal buildings and reflected a taste for European artists and styles, according to the GSA History of Art in Architecture program . The New Deal of the 1930s created federal arts programs with an emphasis on American artists and architects that “reflected a desire to establish a distinctly American national culture.”
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