John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
David Heatwole was sick of looking at an empty pedestal in Martinsburg's town square. So he turned to Craigslist for inspiration.
When Duchamp did it, critics lauded it as Art.
When David Heatwole did it, he received a court summons and a possible $500 fine.
Behold, Heatwole's glorious Toilet Monument, smack in the city square of Martinsburg, West Virginia. The guerrilla commode lasted all of 20 minutes last Wednesday before municipal crews flushed it away with the efficiency of a power plunger and gallon of Drano:
The saga of Martinsburg's controversial loo swirls together a nugget of constipated urban planning with misdirected streams of artistic ambition. It begins, as many public artworks do, with an empty pedestal.
Last year, Martinsburg's city council voted to erect a statue downtown of the Revolutionary War's General Adam Stephen, who founded the Appalachian city of about 17,200 people. The statue was part of a since-completed redesign of the town square to make it more green and pedestrian-friendly. But plans for the Stephen memorial ran into an unexpected barricade.
"The city council signed off on it, and after everything was said and done they found out that supposedly there's no record of what this guy looked like," claims Heatwole, a 42-year-old artist and hospice contractor. "Then they talked about modeling this sculpture from his grandson."
For whatever reason, the sculpture was never built; a recent report in the local Herald Mail cites "cost and other concerns." It's a total guess, but perhaps those "concerns" dealt with the fact that in 1777 the general engaged his men in a bloody bout of friendly fire with Brigadier General Anthony "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Before the battle, Stephen had apparently decided that it was beer thirty. He was court-martialed and kicked out of the army, and founded Martinsburg the next year.
For months, the pedestal meant to support a bronze Stephen stood smooth and empty as a butcher's block. That began to irk Heatwole, who sees his hometown as something of a sucking black hole when it comes to the arts.
"Martinsburg has a horrible reputation. In the '80s there was a huge drug bust here, one of the biggest in the nation at the time," he explains. "And even though the whole block is not on crack and heroin visibly anymore, it's still so rampant in our community. All our towns are just so full of drugs. There's prostitution here; it's not a great place to live. The school systems aren't that great. It's time for a revolution of sorts, not just in our town but in America."
The city's luckless reputation is definitely backed up by a YouTube search of "Martinsburg West Virginia." The very first page features videos such as "Worst Walmart in America," "West Virginia air show crash," and a PBS report detailing the town's "rising crime and divorce rates and the personal toll of dreams deferred," urban woes that the video's poster says proves "MB is becoming (more) of a dump."
Heatwole proposed staging a competition to find a suitable replacement. In a town meeting last Tuesday, he submitted several ideas for an innovative sculpture: a shining crumple of reclaimed motorcycle and auto parts, for instance, and a kinetic sheet-metal swirl. Anything but a sculpture of some old dead dude, basically.
"My feeling is as much as I love history, history is not always the best thing to rejuvenate a town," Heatwole says. "It's one thing to draw on your historical significance, but Martinsburg doesn't really have that much. This guy is not really worth making a sculpture out of. He's just going to be locked in background, and is not going to draw any attention to Martinsburg,"
Frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of interest, Heatwole decided to just do it himself. He bought a $20 toilet on Craigslist and, around 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, plopped it on the pedestal while a journalist friend took notes. Included in the toilet was an invoice for $50,000 along with some examples of his own work.
The mayor and the city council were not available to comment Monday.
Just how this stunt was designed to show the city wasn't a toilet, figuratively and literally, is something that only Heatwole can explain. The best he can put it in words is that "we need creativity in this community." City officials, however, took it to mean something else: "They were pissed, really pissed," Heatwole says. "It was not the greatest toilet and I did not take the time to clean out anything but the toilet bowl. That's probably why they're pissed."
Heatwole will have the opportunity to present a more nuanced artist's statement when he goes to court on May 2 for littering. Or, as he puts it, "illegal dumping."