How The Orange, Sunburst Sculpture On Wisconsin Avenue Came To Be

Apr 26, 2019

Whether you’re driving or walking east on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, as you approach the lake bluff, you'll see a bright orange sculpture. It’s hard to miss.

It's made of steel beams that point in every direction, earning it the nickname the "sunburst sculpture."

Maybe you've stopped and stared and wondered: What is this? Where did it come from? And why is it here? That’s what a few of our Bubbler Talk — our series that answers your questions about Milwaukee and the region — question askers wanted to know.

Well, the massive sculpture, and I do mean massive, stands 40 feet high and weighs 17 tons and has stood in that spot at the end of Wisconsin Avenue for nearly 40 years. It is officially named The Calling, and is owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee ends with The Calling.
Credit Teran Powell

The museum's senior conservator, Jim DeYoung, says the sculpture was a gift from the Bradley Family Foundation. "The Bradley family, Mrs. Bradley in particular and her grandson David, requested Mr. Nordland to look further into additional sculptures to place in the area around the lakefront to enhance the presence of the museum," he explains.

This was during the late 1970s, when Gerald Nordland was the museum director.

DeYoung says Nordland and a network of other art professionals came together to search for the best site for the sculpture. It was decided that the spot atop the lake bluff was one of the best options because, he explains, "Wisconsin Avenue ended unceremoniously."

"I think that they felt that having something at the end of Wisconsin Avenue, that was going to be part of our collection, announcing the presence of the museum would be a good idea," DeYoung says.

So, renowned abstract sculptor Mark di Suvero was brought in. He’s known for using steel beams to create many of his pieces.

The Calling by Mark di Suvero at the end of Wisconsin Avenue, before the Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Santiago Calatrava, was added to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Credit Dedra Walls / Mark di Suvero, Courtesy of Spacetime C.C.

DeYoung was working at the museum when the sculpture was installed in 1982 and recalls seeing di Suvero actually building it himself. "He was a master welder, and he had cranes putting the heavy girders into position stabilizing them and then he would weld them in place on the spot."

Typically for a project this large, DeYoung says, many sculptors would have people doing the work for them, but not di Suvero. The sculpture took at least a week to complete.

The sculpture's orange color is a mixture of red and yellow, and it has to be repainted every five or six years. It’s been painted four times since its installation.

Jim DeYoung with the original color swatches used for The Calling.
Credit Teran Powell

As for why it is named The Calling, one might think the design looks as if the sculpture is calling to something.

DeYoung says that’s the thing about abstract art, you can make it what you want to.

"I think he lets people fill in the blanks. People not knowing the name of it have referred to it as a sunrise, or a starburst .... Calling has many different meaning. A sculpture can have many different meanings, and I think that’s one of the strengths of abstraction is that each individual can read into it."

While DeYoung considers the sculpture magnificent, not everyone agrees. "The initial response, especially from people who like figurative sculptures – generals on horseback and so forth, they were not too pleased with the abstract nature of it. And they also felt that the unapologetic use of steel I-beams was also not refined enough."

Some people have complained the orange sculpture is ugly. It's been defaced with graffiti a couple of times.

And when the Santiago Calatrava wing was added to the art museum in 2001, some people pushed for the sculpture to be removed, saying it blocked the view of the museum addition.

The Calling with the Santiago Calatrava wing in the background.
Credit Teran Powell

But it’s still here.

And this summer, it'll be joined by a series of other sculptures on Wisconsin Avenue for a few months. This will be the third summer that Sculpture Milwaukee brings works from artists around the world to downtown.

"Really good public art slows people down, gets them to stop, take a look," co-curator Marilu Knode says. "Think about what the work might mean and maybe ask questions about where they live. And so, it’s really about entering into dialogue with people."

You'll soon be able check out the 21 new pieces of outdoor art, and you can take a look at The Calling, if you’ve never seen it up close and personal.

On a nice day, the orange really pops against the backdrop of the blue sky. Plus, the sculpture is set to get a new coat of paint, and it might be cool to watch the painting in progress, too.

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