Family business brought Austin artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade back to the Art Center of Waco last week for a few days of restorative therapy involving some heavy lifting and fresh paint.
The family in question was Wade’s 1968 outdoor sculpture, “Funny Farm Family,” assembled from large pieces of scrap metal, welded into new forms and painted in happy orange, purple, blue and yellow.
The past 47 years haven’t been kind to the Family, its members flaked, rusted and dislocated, seemingly no more than an assemblage of colorful junk. The sculpture was moved several years ago from the Art Center’s south grounds on the McLennan Community College campus to its present spot next to Robert Wilson’s “The Waco Door” on the center’s Sculpture Walk.
The past 47 years for Wade, on the other hand, have meant a nationally known career, assembled from such over-the-top creations as a giant iguana on the roof of a New York City club, 40-foot-tall cowboy boots for San Antonio’s North Star shopping mall, a sextet of giant frogs playing instruments, an Airstream trailer turned into an “Iguana Mobile” and more.
That career started in part in Waco in the 1960s, he said, and the filming of a new documentary on his work, “The Flight of the Iguana,” gave the artist a chance for a “Funny Farm Family” reunion. He contacted Art Center of Waco operations manager Meg Gilbert and offered to spiff up his sculpture, an offer she readily accepted.
“It’s the first outdoor public sculpture I did,” the 72-year-old artist explained. “It was the first time I involved the community.”
Teaching at MCC
Wade, fresh off art degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California at Berkeley, was teaching art at James Connally Technical Institute, with which the fledgling McLennan Community College shared space before opening its current location in 1966.
He joined the faculty of the new community college and created the sculpture for the college’s new campus. Working with Waco recycler Melvin Lipsitz Jr., Wade picked the raw material from Lipsitz’s scrap yard, including a couple of power transformer housings, some gooseneck ventilation piping and the tips of two bomb casings manufactured near Waco.
He drafted some local welders to help assemble some pieces and found other help, including students eager for extra credit, to move objects into position.
The title came as an afterthought, he said. “Family” meant as a grouping. The sculpture’s name was “Farm Family” originally before Wade tagged “funny” on it to refer to the work’s bright colors.
“I didn’t think of ‘funny farm’ as a reference to a mental asylum,” he said, but added that became the joke once the sculpture went up in front of the college, a supposed spoofing reference to the MCC faculty.
That story may or may not be true, but part of Wade’s artistic legacy lies in the stories that his creations spawn, and it wouldn’t be the only work to get tongues wagging.
“Funny Farm Family” soon got an international audience, as it was shown at the 1968 HemisFair in San Antonio. It came back to MCC, but Wade moved back to Austin several years later.
Longtime friend and artist Dan O’Hara, who came up to Waco for Wade’s reworking of the piece, noted that “Funny Farm Family” is unique in Wade’s work in its absence of an eye-arresting object like a cowboy boot, a frog, an iguana or the like. Wade said the sculpture simply reflected his work at the time in abstract painting and drawing.
Larger than life
After Waco, Wade dusted off a college nickname of “Daddy-O” for his middle name and became known for his oversized, over-the-top and humorous work, which often drew ire from neighbors of installations and city officials who claimed that his creations violated city signage regulations.
He faced legal challenges over his giant iguana atop the Lone Star Cafe in New York (it’s now atop the Fort Worth Zoo) and six dancing frogs atop Dallas’ Tango nightclub, three of which are back on Dallas’ Greenville Avenue after years watching Interstate 35 traffic whiz by Carl’s Corner north of Hillsboro.
Karen Dinitz’s documentary on Wade’s work, in fact, references those fights in its title — “Too High, Too Wide and Too Long” — and Wade is quick to point out that when matters went to court, art trumped signage.
The new documentary, “The Flight of the Iguana,” by End of the River Productions, takes another look at Wade and his work — McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara appears in “Flight’s” trailer — and its filming gave Wade a reason to revisit his Waco farm family.
Dallas cinematographer Chip Thompkins was on hand April 8 to shoot Wade, armed with a color printout of the original sculpture, and an ad hoc — and typically Wadian — collection: MCC art instructors Glenn Downing and John Chatmas; Art Center manager Gilbert; friend O’Hara; a handful of Waco welders; and an MCC maintenance man called upon when a forklift was needed.
“All you need is a couple of good ol’ boys who know what needs to be done,” Wade quipped.
Some heavy lifting — which prompted Wade to joke about MCC students who had helped way back when, “whoever wanted to get an A — Isn’t that the way we always moved?” — some realignment, some spot welding and the promise of fresh paint and in a matter of a few hours, “Funny Farm Family” was primed for another generation of viewers.
It won’t look quite the same, as Wade repainted one piece “margarita green” and another a different shade of purple, but the artist thinks its future audiences will approve.
“It’ll be shiny and happy and good-lookin’,” he said.