In conceiving the Fables of La Fontaine, sculptor Mary Callery carefully considered appropriate imagery for an elementary school. She took an unprecedented step in school art by inviting children to climb (something no longer encouraged because of safety and security issues), as well as responding to the architectural context. The whimsical sculptural grille installed in the windowlike opening near the auditorium entrance of P.S. 34 can be described as accessible Modernism. Using I-beams and other architectural references, it combines abstracted forms with recognizable imagery derived from an archetypal children’s story.
The sculpture measures twenty feet long and is divided into three segments: “The Fox and the Crow,” the “Frog and the Bull,” and “Three Thieves and the Donkey.” For each story, Callery picked the most dramatic moment to illustrate and also used repetition to create a narrative, best seen in the “Fox and the Crow.” In this panel at the far left, she shows the pair at two different points in the story. First, the cunning fox flatters the crow, telling him what a lovely voice he has. The crow will open his mouth to sing and drop the cheese, shown again as it is about to happen. In the third panel, three thieves steel a donkey and then as the two argue about whether to keep it or sell it, the third leads the donkey away.
Callery took advantage of the windowlike opening to extend forms, swinging them out and suspending them in space, artfully placing the frog so it appears to be leaping at the viewer. Most of the metal pieces resemble industrial C channels, ingeniously cut and welded into organic shapes. Callery also employed the textured steel elements used in truck-tire treads--visible in the body of the frog--as well as nuts and bolts used for details like eyes. Callery’s process was to work out her ideas in wax or clay, then cast the sketch in bronze before translating it into steel or iron in collaboration with an ironworker. In this final step, Callery further abstracted pieces, sharpening edges and flattening planes.
Callery was interested in breaking down barriers between painting and sculpture, as were other sculptors of the period. In keeping with this objective, she introduced color accents on the finished piece, adding a playful note to the elegant black planes of the industrial forms. The bright yellows and white details provide an interesting contrast to the glazed blue brick and further the architect’s aim of brightening the neighborhood.
The Fables of La Fontaine is arguably one of Callery’s best and most ambitious public sculptures. She successfully worked within the architectural context, pushed her artistic vocabulary without sacrificing aesthetic content, and proposed a novel solution for public school sculpture, anticipating projects of the 1980s and 90s.