To a visitor happening upon the creature covered in gold-dusted bottlecaps, it might appear to be nothing more than an appealing—albeit unorthodox—piece of outsider art that is intended to provoke discussion.
But "Alfred" is, in fact, part of a larger project called "Miles of Mules" that is indeed attracting attention throughout the city of Bethlehem, and in small towns in the five counties that encompass the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.
Patterned after a public art program introduced in Zurich, Switzerland several years ago that placed 800 life-sized cows throughout the countryside to encourage public appreciation of art, the "Miles of Mules" project is hoping to do the same in Pennsylvania.
Artists from the area and beyond transformed more than 150 life-sized fiberglass mules, which will graze in their new homes until mid-autumn. The mules were chosen in acknowledgement of the crucial role they played in the area’s development by pulling mine cars and towing canal boats loaded with coal to markets in Philadelphia and New York.
Clad in everything from tuxedos to old newspaper clippings to plastic apples to feathers and shards of glass, the mules showcase the creative talents, passions, and convictions of artists both budding and renowned.
A Vivid Imagination
Among those artists is Mr. Imagination, an internationally acclaimed artist named Gregory Warmack, who helped create the outsider art field on South Mountain with Norm Girardot, Distinguished University Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh. In addition to having his work exhibited at the Smithsonian, Warmack has also created a cow for a Chicago public art project, and a bottlecap-encrusted lizard that has a permanent home at the House of Blues in Orlando, Fla.
Ricardo Viera, professor of art and architecture and director of Lehigh’s art galleries, commissioned Warmack to interpret a mule to reside in Campus Square. Warmack’s trademark treatment of the Lehigh mule is, in Viera’s view, "the most extraordinary of all of them."
"He really outdid himself," says Viera, who says he was fascinated with the one-and-a-half week, round-the-clock production process. "Each of the artists was to contribute their own creativity and imagination, and I think Mr. Imagination’s work is a masterpiece."
Working under a canopy in the backyard of his Bethlehem home, Warmack combined flattened bottlecaps he’s collected from friends with screws, wires, buttons, rhinestones, and lengths of rope to cover the resting mule. He then coated the entire surface with resin to prevent rust, but it had the unintended consequence of casting the mule with an amber glow.
"That was a happy surprise," Warmack says. "I didn’t know it would have that effect, but I like the golden look of it as the bottlecaps age."
The placement of "Alfred" at the base of South Mountain, however, was intentional. That way, Warmack says, "he can look out at the other mules around Bethlehem and make sure they behave themselves."
`A local buzz’
A healthy sprinkling of the colorful beasts created by other groups and artists can be found in abundance on both sides of the Lehigh River in Bethlehem, where the hundreds of thousands of Musikfest celebrants who pour into the area each August have ample opportunity to appreciate their distinctive veneers.
In addition to the Historic Corridor, driving forces behind the project include the Banana Factory Art in South Side Bethlehem, the Cultural Council of Luzerne County, and the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, which joined the project to showcase local artists and encourage regional travel.
"The entire county can get involved and feel a part of it," says the museum’s spokesperson Elisabeth Flynn. "It’s really creates a local buzz."
Come late October, the mules will be rounded up and auctioned off, with proceeds returning to the original sponsors for future programs. Alfred, however, will remain at Lehigh, where he will take up temporary residence in Zoellner Arts Center, Viera says.