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Friends carve bison sculptures for southern Indiana art park

August 29, 2018

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) — David Ruckman and Pat Kelley’s first project together was building a friendship.

The two grew up side-by-side in the New Albany Housing Authority, their large families constantly swapping favors with one another. Ruckman’s mom cooked food for everyone. Kelley’s dad built the Ruckmans’ kitchen table.

“We just bonded from the very beginning,” Kelley said.

He and Ruckman were caddies at the nearby golf course together. They both aspired to be sculptors. And they both eventually settled on professional jobs that satisfied their itch for art in different ways: Ruckman is a surveyor who waxes poetic about “sculpting” the ground, and Kelley is the owner of a dental lab where he molds dentures and other cosmetic fixes for teeth.

Over the years, the two have continued to partner together on various enterprises. One of their most recent ventures is Summit Springs, a commercial development overlooking State Street.

Kelley owned the land, and he wanted Ruckman to survey the project. That led to their next, (truly) most recent collaboration: The Buffalo Art Park.

It may be their greatest yet.

“This collaboration is a whole ’nother level for us,” Ruckman said.

It started with two 16-ton slabs of Indiana limestone, the same material used to make the Empire State Building and the Washington National Cathedral.

Padgett, Inc. helped transport the stones from Bloomington to New Albany, and once they were safely settled in a warehouse, Ruckman and Kelley went to work hand chiseling the rock.

The two had never given up their passion for sculpting, and have individually created many of their own pieces from bronze, wood and stainless steel.

In May, after nearly a year’s worth of work on the limestone (and helped by two other sculptors, Steve Shrout and James Bledsoe), Ruckman and Kelley unveiled their creation: Two American bison, crouched to the ground and facing off, called Tatonka East and Tatonka West.

They sit along a curve on the Summit Springs hill. Stone daisies hide within their fur and their eyes are painted black. The hulking animals rest upon more rocks, spaced out just enough to form a hiding place for time capsules that Ruckman and Kelley plan to seal underneath the bison for 100 years.

The art park was funded by Kelley and John Neace, another Summit Springs developer.

Ruckman and Kelley plan to scatter art all throughout the Summit Springs development, depending on what the new hotel and restaurant users want.

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan is appreciative of Ruckman and Kelley’s vision.

“When developers are looking at a commercial development, I think that it’s important that they consider some of the other needs of the city as well, and (Ruckman and Kelley have) done a great job of that from the get go,” he said.

The best friends are already talking of adding more bison, also carved from Indiana limestone, to the development. They’re also considering taking them somewhere else in New Albany.

Their original idea for the art park was to make something that would outlast themselves.

“We want to give back to the community,” Kelley said. “We grew up here and been here our whole life and we’re an integral part of the community, and we wanted to give back something that our kids and grandkids could enjoy forever.”

Hence the time capsules he and Ruckman plan to install underneath the bison.

The animals that the two chose, by the way, were no coincidence, either. They mark one of the paths of the historic Buffalo Trace, an (until recently) forgotten about trail in Indiana that’s part of a larger path that bison used to find their way from the Great Plains to Kentucky during the winter.

Ruckman is something of an expert on the trail, having retraced its route as part of an Indiana Bicentennial project. He’s also written a book on it, called “Men of the Compass,” and a song, “The Wildplace Trace,” sung by Jonathan Jackson, which was performed at the statue’s unveiling.

Even before the last bison disappeared in Indiana by the 1820s, humans began using the path as a transportation routes. While portions of the trace are still marked by modern roads, knowledge of the trace’s exact route had faded before Ruckman and other surveyors across the state volunteered to rediscover it.

Now, Ruckman is continuing to keep the memory of the Buffalo Trace alive with the art park — an important job, according to Angie Doyle. The heritage program manager and tribal liaison at the Hoosier National Forest said that if you don’t understand your history and know where you’ve been, you don’t understand where you’re going.

The Summit Springs development hasn’t always been embraced by the public, but Ruckman and Kelley say that the art park has.

In addition to the bison, it features an archway with an informational plaque, sitting areas and a state historical marker about the Buffalo Trace, which Floyd County historian Dave Barksdale petitioned to get moved from its original location along State Street.

“There’s been an outpouring of response on this park,” Kelley said.

Ruckman and Kelley hope that the residents who still dislike the commercial development, for its feared effects on drainage and more, will see the art park as a gesture of goodwill.

While discussing the park, Ruckman attempted to assuage recent concerns about the integrity of Summit Springs’ slope. An original plan for the slope with a large wall was scrapped when Ruckman came on board the project, and he thinks that the current one, which features smaller, compact slopes, is better than the last. A geotechnical engineer also tests the stability of the slope every day, he said.

Once the Summit Springs project is finished, Ruckman and Kelley believe that opposition will fade away. Ruckman quoted Abraham Lincoln: ” I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything.”

“All this negative stuff and everything else will wash away,” Ruckman said. “If we’re solid here and we truly are true in what we’ve done, that which was said against us will melt away.”


Source: News and Tribune


Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., http://www.newsandtribune.com

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