What's the story behind this weird sculpture next to MoPac?
Is it a bike? Some weird fertility symbol? Just an abstract ... something?
Paul Jack's commute has taken him past this sculpture right off the Enfield Road exit of MoPac for 20 years.
It's about 6 feet tall, bright yellow and has two round circles at the bottom, a triangle-shaped thing pointing up out of it and a red sort-of mobile-looking thing with two circles sticking out of the triangle.
I've always thought it looks vaguely phallic, but maybe that's just me.
But while everything around it has changed over the years, this sculpture still stands. Paul wanted to know: What's the story?
“To have something this odd and different still be here got me wondering if maybe the story behind how this actually came to be — and came to be here — might just be as interesting as this unusual sculpture itself,” he said.
If you look at the base of the sculpture, there's a worn metal plaque that says "Andrew P. Covar." Probably the name of the artist, right? A Google search doesn't turn up any artist with that name, so I went looking for the person who owns the house it's next to. The sculpture has been here for years, so I look up the property records. The house was sold back in 2012, so I contacted the previous owner — a woman named Aralyn Hughes.
If you were here back in the day, you might have noticed Aralyn's house. It was sky blue with huge letters on the side that spelled “Keepin’ Austin Weird.” In the yard facing MoPac, there were all kinds of weird stuff: Oversized chairs with giant puppets. An elaborate art car. Wheelbarrows with odd things in them. A bunch of upside-down mannequins.
Oh, and she had a pig, Ara (who was named after her mother).
So it was in this environment that Andrew P. Covar built his sculpture in the early 2000s. They knew each other through mutual friends. Andy was an engineer with the city's water utility. (Fun fact: He actually coined the name "Dillo Dirt" — the city's landscaping material made from compost and human waste.)
“He was at my house and he said he would love to build a big concrete mobile, but he just didn’t have a yard big enough to handle it," Aralyn said. "Could he build it in my yard?”
She obviously said yes. So he showed her some drawings and got to work.
“He and his engineering buddies came over and they would measure and do all that kind of stuff and it was a daily occurrence at my house for a long period of time.”
Andy died in 2012. Aralyn's friend Jason Spees got me in touch with Andy's three daughters, and from what they told me, it's no surprise that this sculpture sprang from his mind.
“He always had an interest," Julie Covar said. "There are people who just sort of go through life, but he always had an interest, he always had something he was passionate about and something he was working on.”
“He had a million questions and he would search out all the answers,” another daughter, Diane Barrientes, said.
"The juxtaposition of being an engineer versus someone who loved the arts and was super creative — having those two halves, I thought, were what made him so special,” his other daughter, Cindy Nichols, said.
They told me about their father's love of learning new things. He sailed sailboats and flew small planes. He was always reading a book about someone or something. He always had a project. Once in the 1990s, he collected hundreds of those free AOL CDs and nailed them to trees or made mobiles out of them because he liked the way the light hit them.
But there were also the unfinished projects. They talk about the Adirondack chairs that became just a pile of lumber in the garage. The aborted pizza oven. The sunroom.
Around 2003, the sculpture in Aralyn's yard became his latest project.
"But there was definitely something different about how he approached it where I was like, ‘Oh, this going to happen,'" Julie said.
He started by digging a hole several feet deep. He and his friends filled it with rebar and concrete. They hauled the concrete in, bag by bag — enough to destroy the suspension of the Nissan Sentra he used to haul it all.
Then they built a skeleton out of rebar and wood, covered it with a metal mesh and then with something like stucco. On the top, that metal mobile with two red blobs on it. The mobile was inspired by an artist named Alexander Calder’s work.
So, what the hell is it?
It's not a bike. It's not abstract male anatomy. It has nothing to do with Lance Armstrong.
It's a yellow bird.
"In his mind, it was always a bird," Julie said. "But it was fine that people found something else in it if that resonated with them."
There's a little more to this story, though. Not long after Andy finished, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. He was 57 years old.
"I don’t know that we ever considered Alzheimer’s because he was so young," Cindy said. "But I think once he shared the diagnosis with us, some things just began to click. Some of the behaviors — you know, just the forgetfulness."
"He was OK for a while," Diane said. "He’d just get a little turned around. But, it goes quicker than traditional Alzheimer’s. So it was definitely a faster run."
"It always struck me as a particularly and specifically cruel disease for him," Julie said. "You know, someone who always had a book. Who now, at some point, couldn’t read a book or follow one. He lived so much in his head. He was so cerebral and thoughtful. And to lose that always seemed to be the ultimate worst thing."
Andy died in 2012, about six years after his diagnosis. He was 63.
Looking back, his daughters say, the fact he was getting ill gives his desire to make the sculpture new meaning.
"I think that by that point in time he had felt himself fading," Julie said. "He knew something was wrong. He didn’t know what. He knew he wasn’t remembering things. So I feel like he knew that something was wrong and so it was important for him to have something that wasn’t going to fade. That wasn’t going to go away."
The sculpture is almost like a monument — Andy's mark on a city he loved.
"I feel like he wanted to be able to point to something that would be here after he was gone," Julie said. "Obviously, we’re here, but we’re going to be gone someday. I feel like he really just wanted to be able to say, ‘That’s me, I was there.’ And I feel like it was important to him that it was part of Austin."
And that's the thing that changed something for me. It’s not just a sculpture of — apparently — a bird anymore. It’s a memorial. A manifestation of that urge to make some lasting mark on this planet before you go. And the anxiety of that chance starting to slip away.
It’s a reminder for all of us: Don't wait. Make that weird bird sculpture, before it’s too late.