This is a story about the Little People — the Little People bronzes that is — cluster of small figures that used to grace a public plaza off South Warren Street by the entrance to the state Department of Human Services building, until they disappeared.
I enjoyed the Little People a lot. I spent plenty of time with them. The public space they resided in was modest, adjacent to a no man’s land between Warren and Broad Streets where the Assunpink Creek had been confined and covered over in some ill-advised urban works project of the past. What brought the space to life were these sculptures. The diminutive full-figure bronzes were installed on concrete pedestals. Animated and engaged with each other, they animated the public space too.
They were small, no more than two feet tall. They weren’t particularly innovative. They were even a bit odd, dowdy and misshapen. Portly men in coats and fedoras, women in skirts and heels. Office workers. They could have been drab and depressing, a reflection of the dehumanizing glacial state government which calls Trenton home, and the plodding bureaucrats who populate it. But somehow they weren’t.
Each little person had their own individuality, their own personality. They coalesced as a single public sculpture but they invited and rewarded closer examination and interaction as individual pieces.
The Little People were also something of a mystery. There was no plaque naming the sculptor and his or her work. One of the pedestals was empty even, cut mounting provisions emerging from the concrete, its figures stolen or otherwise lost. I once went inside the Department of Human Services building and asked if anyone knew anything about them, their name or the artist who created them.
“I think they’re by that guy who does all those sculptures of people,” I was told.
“You mean Seward Johnson?”
“Yeah, Seward Johnson.”
Definitely not Seward Johnson. So they remained the Little People, created by the mystery sculptor.
Then the Little People went away.
It must have been sometime in the mid to late 2000s. The sculptures were removed and a chain link fence was put up around the pocket park. Only the concrete pedestals remained. And that’s how it has been ever since.
In the intervening years, my hope that whatever renovation project was being conducted would be completed and the Little People would reappear faded. I feared they were lost.
But some of us kept the memory of the Little People alive. One of those people is Dan Aubrey, who I credit with helping me “find” them again.
Aubrey is currently the arts editor of the publications U.S. 1 and Trenton Downtowner, but has a long history of involvement with the arts in the region, including stints at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and State Museum. Like me, he is a big fan of public art
Through sheer persistence Aubrey actually tracked down the artist who created the Little People. He is William McElcheran, a Canadian artist who created and installed many such sculptures featuring bronze “everyman” businessmen and businesswomen in public spaces throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“There was a mystery for years about who did the sculptures,” Aubrey told me via email. “One of my tasks at the NJSCA was to try to figure out the artist. It took over a year of checking archives and documents, with the state having no information.”
“I finally figured it out by using Google Images and describing the sculptures in a variety of ways,” Aubrey says. “After I found similar art works, I found a name connected to them and a gallery in Toronto.”
Aubrey contacted the gallery, the Kinsman Robinson Galleries, sent them images and established for certain that the works were created by McElcheran
McElcheran died in 1999, and his wife is deceased too. The Kinsman Robinson Galleries, which represents McElcheran’s estate, could give Aubrey no further information on the sculptures, or how they came to be in Trenton.
Nor could anyone in Trenton. “No-one seems to know. Strange how short memories are in the capital city,” Aubrey says.
Aubrey did inform me that McElcheran’s Trenton bronzes were safe and sound, and said Don Ehman could lead me to them. Ehman is with the NJ State Council on the Arts, and among other duties directs the Arts Inclusion program, which steers up to 1.5 percent of the construction cost of all state funded projects towards art installed at those projects.
I met Ehman on a recent sultry day at 225 West State Street, where the state arts council has its offices. The bronzes were apparently removed from their site by the state Department of Construction and Property Management and eventually handed over to the arts council. The intent is to reinstall them when a larger renovation project is completed at the site, which opens up the enclosed stretch of the Assumpink Creek again. The timeframe is a big question mark.
We talked, then Ehman led me up to the arts council’s fourth floor offices. In a large storage closet, nine well-padded bundles lay on the floor. Ehman hoisted one of them onto a cart and carefully removed the packing. And there I was, after all those years, again face to face with one of the Little People. Maybe I’m animating them a little too much, but I don’t think he or his fellows are very happy, all swaddled up in the dark in that little room.
I hope the Little People get to animate their little park again someday. I miss them.