Arts: The curious tale of Topiary Man

Eric Lyttle
Columbus Monthly
Topiary Man, a replica of the Rhodes statue, looks like it's stepping off the Scientology building at Lynn and Pearl alleys.

Very few people—a coterie of artistic insiders, maybe—knew he was coming. For months, years even, the Lynn and Pearl alleys that intersect behind the Rhodes Tower Downtown had been a bustling with activity. Summer weekdays were filled with the percussion of jackhammers and the horn section of backing trucks filled with sand and bricks and other construction material. On Tuesdays and Fridays, it was almost impassable as the Pearl Market filled the alley and a stretch of Broad Street frontage with merchants and patrons and goods and produce. It was a noisy, active bump and grind for nearly all of 2017.

In October—the same month the Pearl Market closed up for the season—it ended. With the market went the construction crews, the orange cones, the noise-making machinery. All was quiet. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, there he was—Topiary Man, above the bricks on the roof at the back of the Scientology building, looking over and seemingly poised to step off to the intersection of Pearl and Lynn.

Unless you glanced up about four stories, you missed him completely. But if you did see him, you stopped, curious. What the hell is it? Big and green—like a human shrub, 8 feet tall with a funky white tie just hovering there without any logical explanation, stepping off toward nowhere. Is that a briefcase he's carrying? Is he in a hurry? How'd he get there? Who put him there? So many questions. So .… weird. And yet, he kind of looked familiar. Is that a bushy replica of the statue of the late Gov. Jim Rhodes that stands a block away at the front of the Rhodes Tower on Broad Street? It sure seems like it. But why?

It's all of those things. It's none of those things. It's whatever the viewer thinks it is, says Malcolm Cochran, one of a team of artists and designers organized almost seven years ago to enhance the image of this hidden urban alleyway.

“I'd rather have it wide open to interpretation,” Cochran says. “It's meant to be playful. It's not guerrilla art, but it has that element of surprise. If it has that sense of just been dropped in there, that's exactly what we wanted.”

Cochran, a sculptor whose works include “Field of Corn” in Dublin and the Goodale Park fountain, also worked on the new light fixtures at the Broad and Gay street entrances to Pearl Alley, as well as at the corner of Third and Lynn—a muscular green outstretched arm holding a white globe—a pearl. The arms are tattooed either “Pearl” or “Lynn.” Cochran says he asked one of the Pearl Market vendors to pose, arm outstretched, holding a cantaloupe, as a model for the unique sculpture.

“There's a whole series of thoughts about entrances and extended hands of greeting as welcoming across cultures,” Cochran says. “I exaggerated it to be heroic, strong. I actually think I got him too veiny.”

Just north of the perched Topiary Man, on another building wall, are the words “Pearl (heart) Lynn” in cursive, in that same shrub-looking material. “We wanted to push the farmer's market and the green philosophy,” Cochran says.

Other new, armless, iron light standards have been installed along both alleyways.

It's all part of more than $1 million in improvements to the alleys undertaken by the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District that included the aforementioned construction to replace some bricks, level some surfaces and bury some utilities, all of which lasted the better part of two years.

The hardscrabble work, as well as the street art, was all done to encourage retail development in the alleys. “The unmet demand for retail Downtown is substantial, and there are a host of independent retail operators who would love to be Downtown,” says Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of the Capital Crossroads SID. “But the barriers to retail Downtown are also significant, and one of the biggest is lack of affordable space on that small scale.”

Ricksecker believes the Lynn and Pearl alleys could accommodate up to 45 different small retail operators in between the eight or so restaurants that already call the alleys home.

“It's our own little piece of Paris,” Ricksecker says. “It's gritty, it's exotic, it's a working alley with elements of surprise. It feels so urban. And there's buy-in from the surrounding property owners.”

“I think the alleys are wonderful,” says Cochran. “I can't wait for it to take off.”