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New audio tour offers insight into Philly’s outdoor art

Martha Erlebacher recalls the feedback her husband, sculptor Walter Erlebacher, heard in 1976 when his work, Jesus Breaking Bread, was unveiled outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Martha Erlebacher recalls the feedback her husband, sculptor Walter Erlebacher, heard in 1976 when his work, Jesus Breaking Bread, was unveiled outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

The piece looked all wrong, some people complained, because, "everybody knows Jesus had a beard."

Shroud of Turin believers aside, how anybody, let alone "everybody" could have imagined they were correct about the beard is a mystery, says Martha Erlebacher, a painter in her own right, speaking on behalf of her husband who died in 1991.

Her recorded comments on Breaking Bread, and the voices of 100 other artists and historians revealing the untold histories of outdoor art along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelly Drive are part of a free audio tour launched Thursday.

A project of the Fairmount Park Art Association, the Museum Without Walls Audio tells the stories behind 51 works of public art in a series of 35 stops. The project has some extremely cool technical features, but it also can be accessed by anyone capable of dialing a phone.

Philadelphia has more outdoor sculpture than any other city in the United States, says Penny Balkin Bach, the art association's executive director. Yet even long-time residents can find something new on these three-minute audio segments.

Three generations of Calders are featured: The Shakespeare Memorial and Swann Memorial Fountain (both on Logan Square) are by Alexander Stirling Calder; and Three Discs, One Lacking, is a 1968 work by his son Alexander Calder.

And, if you look through the frame of the Lacking disc, the statue of William Penn City Hall tower, done by the artist's grandfather Alexander Milne Calder, comes into view.

Some of the art work on the tour are familiar images (Randolph Rogers' Abraham Lincoln, for example, and Frederic Remington's Cowboy).

Others are on opposite ends of what many experts might consider a continuum of great works. (The Thinker by Auguste Rodin vs. Rocky by Thomas Schomberg).

And even potentially ho-hum stops become fascinating in light of the information offered.

Take, for example, the James A. Garfield Monument, created in 1895 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and located on Kelly Drive south of the Girard Avenue Bridge.

The 20th President of the United States, Garfield is perhaps best remembered for his death. He was shot July 2, 1881 in the waiting room of the Baltimore and Potomac railroad depot and died of blood poisoning ten days later.

But the monument is more than an homage to Garfield. His bust is on the top of a 20-foot granite pedestal. So what's most visible at eye level is a cast bronze female figure of the Republic, created by the artist to represent the nation that was harmed by the assassination.

On the audio, Nancy Tomes, the author of The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life, explains why in this case the monument is more significant than the man. And Frank Bender, a Philadelphia artist and the leading forensic sculptor in the country, tells us Saint-Gaudens created his bust of Garfield by working from a death mask - made by pouring plaster on the face of the deceased. ("Applying grease the beard and eyebrows first," Bender tells us.)

Perhaps the most overlooked piece of art highlighted on the tour is a string of words on a 1,200 foot retaining wall on the Schuylkill's east bank.

The Sleeping Woman, a poem by Stephen Berg, was painted in multiple coats of polyurethane by artist Tom Chimes in 1991. The individual letters are fading from decay now, but that's intended. When sections of the wall collapsed during a flood, Berg and Chimes insisted the lost sections of the poem not be replaced because the piece was meant to reflect the natural changes in life.

The effect is haunting.


Ways to Go: There are several ways to access the free Museum Without Walls Audio Tour.

By phone: 215-399-9000


Download: mobile apps available for iPhone, Blackberry and Android.

Signs are posted at each of the 35 stops on the tour with dialing instructions for listening via cell phone to any of the audios individually.(free on most cell phone plans on weekends.)

Pick up a free map of the sites on the tour at the Fairmount Park Welcome Center on the West side of LOVE Park, at other local visitor centers and at most cultural institutions.

At the website, download the map, plus online audio slideshows, and high-quality stereo of each stop for use on iPods and MP3 players.

A mobile application will also available for use on the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android.

In addition, the website will allow visitors to send in their own stories and submit photos of their favorite public art works.