Ride an Old Paint

The decorated fiberglass Ponies del Pueblo go way beyond the concept of 'equestrian statue.'

When some monumental object with no obvious utility appears on the landscape, it raises profound questions for humanity

What is this thing? Is it friendly? Will it improve my cell phone reception? Most Tucsonans have noted the colossal lumberjack on the corner of Glenn Street and Stone Avenue, tilted with axe in hand over a parking lot. I'm sure quite a few conversations in passing cars have gone like this: "Man, what is up with that lumberjack?"

A good question. And now there are life-sized ponies popping up in Tucson, imposing ponies that have been painted or otherwise adorned by local artists. Like the lumberjack, they serve no practical purpose and seem to have dropped to the Pueblo from the air. Some of you may find yourselves pondering such philosophical questions as: "Man, what is up with the gigantic painted ponies?"

I shall try to answer some of these questions.

What are the Ponies del Pueblo?

The ponies are life-sized horses, sculpted in fiberglass resin, decorated by local artists, sponsored by local businesses and nonprofits, that are moved (by vague caprice) around town for the viewing pleasure of Tucsonans. Ponies have been sighted recently in the downtown library, the TCC Music Hall and the lobby of the Transamerica building, inside the coffee stand. There are about 35 ponies scattered around town.

If you've never encountered a decorated, life-sized statue of an animal in public before, you may find this notion strange. Yet by now, so many American cities have embarked upon similar public art projects--cows in Chicago, cows in New York City, cows in Las Vegas, bears in Montana, ducks in Eugene, sheep in Reno, ponies in New Mexico and gigantic Mr. Potatoheads in Rhode Island (everyone's favorite)--that it seems clear that no soul can rest until every city in our great nation has sponsored a herd, flock or gaggle of art animals.

But what are they?

The ponies may be a representation of our journey through life (as horses were once used for transportation); they may symbolize our estrangement from nature, particularly from the gaze of domestic animals, from which we have become divided in post-industrial times. Or, they could be a fling of pure whimsy, like garden gnomes. At the downtown library, I observed many people pausing to examine "Pony Express," decked out by artist Alice Briggs--a pony covered in a dense rainbow of postage stamps. People went "Oooh!" and then they went "What's it for?" and then they read the placard at the bottom and said, "Oh, they're going to sell it for a benefit," which seemed to satisfy nearly everyone's curiosity.

But wait! I don't think commerce alone can explain the ponies. I am reminded of the Gauguin painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?--an existential canvas in which art and the subject of art simultaneously ponder one another's meaning. I am reminded of this every time I look at one of the Ponies del Pueblo.

Do people like the ponies?

According to Tucson/Pima Arts Council public relations director Karen Falkenstrom, "People are gaga over them. They are delightful in themselves, and even better when you see them grouped together. They really demonstrate the different aspects of the arts in our local community."

Why haven't I seen any of these ponies?

You must keep your eyes peeled to find a pony. Currently, they are scattered throughout Tucson and Marana--in car dealerships, corporate lobbies and public parks; the T/PAC Web site provides a map (www.poniesdelpueblo.org), but call first, since sometimes ponies are suddenly moved to new locations. T/PAC plans to arrange pony tours in the near future. And in July, all the ponies will be herded into one location (yet to be determined) so they can all be viewed together.

Do I even want to see the ponies?

Yeah, sure you do.

Are some of the ponies more exciting than, or artistically superior to, other ponies?

I guess. I like Doug Shelton's "Airstream Pony," which has been covered with metal to look like a shiny, riveted trailer, with a porthole cut in the side that reveals a diorama of a southwestern landscape. Lori Musil's "Sonora Pony" is lovely, lushly painted with native desert animals, overlapping and tucked into different parts of the pony anatomy--a prairie dog on a foreleg, a scorpion on the bottom of a hoof.

But really, the fun of the ponies is to see them all together, to compare what the different artists have done. There are ingenious ponies, straightforward ponies, pretty ponies, ominous ponies. Referring to the ponies as a group, Falkenstrom comments: "There's something wonderful about the collective nature of the ponies that people enjoy very much." Just for me, personally, in my humble opinion, I think as a concept, they're kind of precious--kitschy and overly cute. But I will admit, when they're all together in a group ("a herd") they're fun!

Why can't I go to a museum when I'm in the mood to look at art? What is "public art"? Why do I have to stumble upon it when I'm trying to do something else?

The reason for public art is to give the viewer an unexpected jolt of delight--to impart the surreal, Duchampian feeling: "This is not an animal."

Or not.

Will I understand the ponies?

I don't know. Some among us will.

May my children sit upon the ponies? May I?

No. No sitting. No riding.

Will the ponies ever come to life and frolic on the land?

According to Falkenstrom, the ponies will be sold at a gala auction at La Paloma in November, with the proceeds being divided between the artists, the sponsoring nonprofit organization and T/PAC. "After that," she says, "I suppose anything's possible."

She does note, however, that the ponies are constructed of fiberglass resin reinforced by steel rods.

Can the Ponies del Pueblo love?

The ponies, like stuffed animals, may receive love. But the pragmatists among us will say no, they cannot love. I say: Look into the pony's eyes. You may see love there.