BIRCHDALE (AP) -- Egypt has its pyramids and the Salisbury Plains their Stonehenge. Now Highway 11 near Birchdale, located on the Rainy River about 40 miles west of International Falls, will have its own colossal monument -- Basshenge.
Ready by the Fourth of July, if all goes well, will be a giant spiral in the shape of a musical bass clef sign. Posted in and around the 93-foot spiral will be 21 columns supporting steel sculptures shaped like basses -- also known as bass fiddles, bass viols or those large instruments in the back of the orchestra that musicians stand up to play.
The directors of the project, Joseph Guastafeste, the principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony for almost 40 years, and his wife, the writer Yvette Journeaux, are donating part of their land just east of Birchdale for the monolithic artwork.
They are also coordinating the services of nationally prominent artists Richard Hunt and Matthew Owens to provide, along with Guastafeste, designs for the bass-based sculptures as well as for linking musical staffs which will, in metal, recall the lintels of Stonehenge.
On the staffs will hang musical notations and images recalling the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Cardinal and Theological Virtues.
The designs are being turned into 3/8-inch steel by Leland Nelson, who does welding when not running a gas company in nearby Baudette.
People's collaboration and creativity are held in esteem by the creators, who see the project as a means to inspire other artists through a visually compelling work. Tourism, too, may benefit as aficionados of Big Balls of Twine, concrete walleyes and Paul Bunyans seek out the latest addition to Minnesota's roadside attractions.
Guastafeste, on a recent trip to his and Journeaux's Birchdale cabin, recalled how, while watching a National Geographic program on Stonehenge, Journeaux turned to him and said, "Why not a Basshenge?"
"I said, 'What?' She said, 'A Basshenge.' I thought about it over night," Guastafeste recounted. He had been infected with an idea he couldn't shake.
At first he planned to rely on actual aluminum basses, created during World War II as sturdy and portable instruments for wartime. While he did acquire a defunct instrument from the Interlochen Academy, where he had first seen an aluminum bass, advertisements for more only raised offers of a couple overly expensive "antiques."
Inspiration next came from Guastafeste's running across an old clipping of a performance of Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" for which Hunt had created a steel violin; the soldier in the production traded it to the devil for a book of the future.
Guastafeste contacted Hunt about the bass project. Hunt -- a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters who has taught at Yale, Cornell and Harvard and is represented in the National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of Art among other top-notch collections -- agreed to create a design.
Owens -- a versatile artist perhaps best known in Chicago as a puppet maker and performance artist -- also agreed to provide designs for Basshenge, including models for the Sins and Virtues. Owens, in fact, recently created puppets of the Seven Deadly Sins for Tim Robbins' film "Cradle Will Rock," which in turn recalls Orson Welles' puppet-filled 1937 production of "Doctor Faustus."
A friend of Nelson's will dig 21 holes five feet below the freeze line in a field beside Highway 11. Each hole will be filled with cement which will, in turn, support a peg ready to hold a bass. (The concrete for the footings will be paid for through a matching grant of $2,000 from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.)
Three 10-foot basses will be located in the center of Basshenge, while 18 mounted six-foot basses will be set in a Stone Henge-inspired pattern around the perimeter. Guastafeste expects that visitors will be able to walk around all the basses and, if they arrive on the Winter Solstice, may see the sun line up with the most central 10-foot sculpture.
Guastafeste has time off from his symphony engagements in June and hopes to usher the project along toward a July 4 grand opening to coincide with annual Birchdale festivities. His thoughts have included bringing nine bassists up to play a friend's composition as part of the opening ceremonies.
In the meantime, he has envisioned how the basses will rust over time and how they will likely cause traffic on this sparsely populated highway to slow as amazed travelers catch a glimpse of the unexpected.
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