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Aye Matey! Frank Benson on the Controversy Surrounding his New Public Sculpture in Bristol

Frank Benson, Castaway (2016), a 3D model at the proposed site. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Frank Benson, Castaway (2016), a 3D model at the proposed site. COURTESY THE ARTIST

While crafting Castaway—his life-size bronze statue of Alexander Selkirk, the 18th-century mariner who is said to be the inspiration behind Robinson Crusoe—for a public art commission in Bristol, England, Frank Benson said that he took great care to make sure that the concerns of the local community were taken into consideration. Nevertheless, controversy has erupted over the proposed location of the sculpture: a former graveyard on the property of St. Andrew’s Churchyard in the Bristol suburb of Clifton.

The BBC reported last Friday that ten letters of complaint have been written, with locals stating that the sculpture of the rugged castaway has the potential to be “a bit creepy” and “terrifying” at night in the context of a former graveyard. “I am a little surprised that there was a controversy about it, because we had been working on the design of the sculpture for actually a couple years now, so it had been on the table for quite a long time,” Benson told me by phone this week. “There was a display made of the design for the sculpture and that’s when the controversy erupted, I guess.”

Benson’s work, funded by Nuffield Health through Art in the Public Realm Bristol, was inspired by the city in both concept and materials. “When I looked at the history of Bristol, and particularly the area where the hospital was being built, it was near the Goldney Estate,” Benson said, referring to the nearby property of wealthy merchant Thomas Goldney II, the principal shareholder for Captain Woodes Rogers’s voyage on The Duke, and its sister ship, The Duchess. It was on that trip that Selkirk, a Scottish man stranded on an island for four years, was rescued. Selkirk’s subsequent relocation to Bristol led to an eventual meeting with Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe at the Bristol pub Llandoger Trow. The rest is history.

The decision to cast the statue in bronze also comes from Goldney—the family used to own a brass foundry in the Bristol area. Benson’s due diligence didn’t stop there. “We actually flew the model for the sculpture out to Bristol and had him pose in several different locations around the graveyard to find one that looks natural,” Benson said. (The model is New York-based musician Joe Heffernan. Benson told me over text message that he chose him for his “unique personal style … With his long hair, beard and tattoos I thought he had the look of a modern day swashbuckler.”) The artist also conducted an archaeological dig below the location where the sculpture was to be erected, “to make sure that we weren’t disturbing any grave sites or doing anything that would offend people in that way.”

Benson noted that there is a small homeless population that sleeps in the graveyard. “That might be part of the fear behind the sculpture, that the sculpture could be mistaken for someone that actually might be spending the night there,” he said. Although Benson clarified that “the intention with this sculpture wasn’t to frighten people,” he noted that “some of the things that I was thinking about when I was making it, of course, were the story of Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk, and when we looked into it, we understood that Alexander Selkirk was kind of an eccentric person—when he was brought to Bristol he wandered the streets a bit.”

Benson tells me that the plan is to go forward with the sculpture in its current location. The church remains supportive. “There was a lot of consideration into the site and the material and the subject matter that was very specific to Bristol and Clifton that surrounding area, so I hope that the sculpture gets approved to be shown in public there, because it really was inspired by the site,” he said. “It wasn’t just a sculpture that was made that was sort of plopped into this space.”

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