The John Deere Commons. Photo by Bruce Walters.

It's easy to start taking outdoor Christmas lights for granted about now. They have been draped over trees and strung along porch railings and under the eaves for weeks - even longer in the shopping centers.

Though often used with little real thought, they have symbolic connotations. It is intriguing to think of them as a modern equivalent of the Yule log that warmed our distant ancestors during the winter solstice. Or the guiding star over Bethlehem on the first Christmas.

Pause for a moment and consider how remarkable it is that these tiny electric lights can transform a bleak winter night into a delicately laced wonderland. How leafless trees can become magical, and simple homes can become places of wonderment. How they brighten more than the longest nights of the year. How fond memories grow from these fragile strings of lights.

Photo by Bruce Walters.

At the corner of Third Avenue and 19th Street in the Rock Island District is a glazed terra-cotta bust of an American Indian wearing a war bonnet that encircles his head, almost like the traditional painting of a halo. Arrows, peace pipes, and entwined snakes are also included in the symmetrical composition. This 10-foot-wide relief is placed above the second-story window on the rounded corner of the Fort Armstrong Theatre building.

Though the artwork is ornate, the dominant central face gives it a strong point of emphasis. The angular structure of the face and surrounding triangular patterns are counterbalanced by the overarching half-circle and circular shapes radiating from the composition's center.

The decorative patterns around the other second-floor windows and the building's outline are also composed of these geometric shapes and Native American symbols. The ivory-, blue-, yellow-, red-, and green-colored glaze stands out against the theatre's dark-red brick exterior.

Nature Spiral. Photo by Bruce Walters.

Nature Spiral is a circular arrangement of limestone boulders situated near the Mississippi River in the Illiniwek Forest Preserve, near Hampton, Illinois (just north of East Moline). Ideally suited for a park named after the regional Native American tribes, the artwork blends in with its natural environment and is reminiscent of Native American and Neolithic earthworks. The spiral can be reached by Illinois Route 84, or the Great River Trail for hikers and bicyclists.

The site was chosen in 1995 by a community-wide partnership led by Quad City Arts and River Action. Public meetings were arranged for the community to express ideas for an artwork that improved awareness of, appreciation of, and access to the Mississippi River. In all, nearly 50 historic preservationists, river activists, and members of the community contributed to the project led by area artist Kunhild Blacklock, who designed the work and supervised its installation.

Completed in 1997, Nature Spiral is primarily made of 65 boulders, with outlined images of native birds, fish, insects, animals, and plants cut into the surface of many of the stones. Among the flora and fauna is a bald eagle, channel catfish, mayfly, deer, silver maple, cattail, and waterlily. Approximately 800 feet in circumference, the spiral also includes planted trees and wildflowers. A nearby informational sign provides a map of the spiral and a key to the iconic images on the rocks.

Sacred Heart Cathedral. Photo by Bruce Walters.When Sacred Heart Cathedral (at the corner of Iowa and 10th streets in Davenport) was completed in 1891, its bell tower and spire was the tallest structure in the Quad Cities. Soaring majestically above the surrounding trees and neighborhood, its approximate height of 160 feet seemed even greater because of its placement at the top of a steep hill near the crest of the bluff overlooking the Mississippi.

Several blocks to the west, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (at 121 West 12th Street) had been constructed 18 years before. Although a spire was part of architect's original plans, it was not built because of a lack of funds.

But in 1998, Elizabeth Haines (a member of the Trinity congregation) personally financed the building of a bell tower and spire. In memory of her grandparents - who were charter members of the cathedral - the 131-foot tower was built to its original specifications.

Photo by Bruce Walters.

Hill Arches is a bronze sculpture created in 1974 by one of the most prominent sculptors of the 20th Century, Henry Moore (1898-1986). Moore's monumental works are often based on human forms, but as its title suggests, this piece is meant to be seen in a relationship with its environment.

It is located on a small island in the reflecting pond directly in front of the Deere & Company world-headquarters building in Moline, off John Deere Road a little more than three miles east of Interstate 74.

Viewed from the island, the sculpture is massive. Weighing more than 8,800 pounds, it is 18 feet in length and 12 feet high. But when viewed from a distance, its open spaces give it an unfolding, rising quality. Though large, it appears to float just above the lawn, its base hidden by the grass. This is a fitting paradox for a sculpture that works both with the modern architectural style of the world headquarters and with its surrounding landscape.

Rock Island's Main Library. Photo by Bruce Walters.More than a century separates the opening dates of the most recent and the oldest public-library buildings in the Quad Cities. The differences between these buildings reflect our changing relationship to the environment, and their architecture reflects the evolution of the library from a symbol of culture to a community center.

Davenport's Eastern Avenue branch library (at 6000 Eastern Avenue) opened a year ago on July 10. The horizontal shape of the building and curved entrance relate to its surrounding environment, an open, grassy area of gentle rolling hills. The library has been designated by the U.S. Green Building Council as a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) building. Its environmental features include a geothermal-heating and -cooling system, stormwater-management systems for the roof and parking areas, and energy-efficient lighting. Even the building materials were selected to ensure a healthy environment for the library staff and patrons.

Davenport's Eastern Avenue branch library. Photo by Bruce Walters.

At the library's entrance is a wall covered in sheets of bronze. The prominent position of the wall and its subtle patterning make it seem more like a minimalist sculpture than the means to drain water from the roof into the rain basin and bioswale. The bronze wall is set within a rain garden - planted with native plants and grasses, helping the water soak into the ground instead of running into the storm sewers. The ecologically conscious approach to the design of this building is remarkably different from the neoclassical design of libraries in the early 20th Century.

Davenport's Eastern Avenue branch library. Photo by Bruce Walters.

The Rock Island Main Library (at 401 19th Street in the Rock Island) opened on December 15, 1903. The building became the permanent home for a library collection that was established in 1855 and made public in 1872, making it the oldest public library in the state of Illinois. Funded primarily by Rock Island businessmen Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Frederick Denkmann, the building opened shortly before the Carnegie libraries in Davenport and Moline.

Rock Island's Main Library. Photo by Bruce Walters.Originally called Rock Island's Temple of Literature, the building's fluted Ionic columns, exterior of quarried stone, and classical-styled ornamentation are indeed derived from ancient Greek and Roman temples. The dozen names incised in the frieze near the roof - from the Greek poet Homer to the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne - say, in effect, that there is an unbroken link between us and the founders of Western Civilization.

One enters the main section of the building by ascending a flight of stone steps and passing through an imposing foyer. We literally rise higher when we come into this archive of knowledge. Though one is now greeted by collections of digital information - DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks - the interior architecture is formal, creating a very different atmosphere from the more welcoming and comfortable space of the newer libraries.

The Rock Island Main Library has had public meeting rooms and a children's collection of books - even an art gallery - from its inception. Yet this is a far cry from the community centers that libraries have evolved into. More than just lenders of books, libraries now provide Internet access and community rooms for a great range of not-for-profit organizations - from the Girl Scouts to senior groups, from choirs to quilters. When you are next looking for an a pleasant coffee shop, consider going to the library.

But are buildings art?

Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps America's most renowned architect, certainly thought so when he stated, "The mother art is architecture."

Contemporary architect Richard Meier expanded on this by saying: "Architecture is the greatest of the arts, and it encompasses thinking that other arts don't even deal with. Like [the] relationship of the work to the individual human being - the person who uses it, the person who experiences it, the person who sees it, and how that person perceives that space."

Bruce Walters is a professor of art at Western Illinois University.

This is part of an occasional series on the history of public art in the Quad Cities. If there's a piece of public art that you'd like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.

'Lady of Germania,' by Jeff Adams. Photo by Bruce Walters.

Crossing the Centennial Bridge into Iowa, one is welcomed by a larger-than-life sculpture of a woman with outstretched arms. Behind her is an approximately 90-foot-long colonnade with the word "Davenport" in large capital letters across the top. This gateway is at the location of the city's first park, Washington Square, and the statue is based on a figure that once stood there.

'Invitation,' by Gene Horvath. Photo by Bruce Walters.

A 22-foot-high, brightly painted yellow-orange aluminum sculpture was installed at 100 17th Street in Rock Island in 1982. Placed near the entrance of the First National Bank of the Quad Cities, it was created to invite the viewer to join the celebration of the bank's 130th anniversary. The sculpture was titled, appropriately, Invitation.

Though the building is now the Modern Woodmen Bank building, Invitation stands in the same location. Its intense and pure color suggests a brightly colored flower, and the sculpture seems to bloom from its relatively small, rectangular base - almost like a rapidly growing plant in a vase that has become too small.

The uniform color, on the other hand, suggests industrial fluorescent yellow. Though the sculpture's shapes are fluid, even elegant, they are formed from hard-edged, seamless sheets of metal. The sculpture's dynamic arcs seem to describe enormous paths of flight - more akin to a jet fighter than a bird.

War memorial by C.S. Paolo. Photo by Bruce Walters.

A large cast-bronze war memorial has stood in downtown Moline for roughly eight decades. On the sculpture's north side is the imagery one might expect on such a memorial: an idealized soldier holding an American flag under the spread wings of an eagle. Rising through the sculpture's center is a towering flag pole.

This is not the oldest war memorial in the Quad Cities, nor is it the most prominent or grandest. It is, however, a thoughtful - perhaps even profound - sculptural group of five figures.

Matt Kargol, 'Passages.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

Passages is a grouping of four rectangular columns prominently placed between the Family Museum and the Bettendorf Public Library on Learning Campus Drive. The column closest to the library lies flat on the ground. In sequence, the other three stand angled at 45 degrees, 67 degrees, and finally fully vertical. The effect of these 18-foot-tall, stainless-steel columns rising in a stop-motion progression is impressive.

Yet what ultimately catches one's attention is the brightly painted sphere perched precariously at the top of the standing column. An area the size of the sphere has been scooped out of the other columns. These smooth inverse curves are painted in the same bright colors as the sphere - yellow, red, and green - and visually soften the angular metal impact of the sculptural group. They feel like a finger's indent in a stick of butter. The positioning of these indents creates an illusion of an upward trajectory or path that the sphere has taken.

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