Once There Was a Forest

Background Information

1989, James Surls (artist) and Robert Creeley (poet). Eight 2'10" square plaques. 725 S. Figueroa Street 725 S. Figueroa Street (Poet's Walk)
Eight circular bollards lining Seventh Street were designed as benches for tired shoppers and harried office workers to sit, rest and meet people.(1) These quiet moments are enriched by the mix of James Surls' drawing and Robert Creeley's poems that are engraved in the top of the bollards.(2) Surls chose the bollards for his joint installation with Creeley because they are accessible to the public and they invited the installation of a sequence of images and poems.

After being asked to participate in the "Poets' Walk" in 1988, Creeley spent three days at Surls' home in Texas, where he wrote more than twenty short simple poems for the project. He and Surls also researched different types of stone panels and lettering at a local tombstone maker. Creeley ultimately selected a clear typewritten font to reinforce the simplicity of his poems. Rather than laying out the verse on one line or along the edge of the plaques, Surls and Creeley decided to place it where it would make the plaques look like pages, and the poetry and images easily read.

Surls, who previously incorporated verse by Houston poet Cynthia McDonald in his work, chose specific poems of Creeley's poems for the installation. He then drew universally understood representational images so people would remember the "Poets Walk" when seeing the images "in other places and in other contexts."(3)

After designing the images, Surls selected the individual bollards for placement. He transformed the inert stumps into an integrated sequence intensifying the symbolism of each panel.

Including a small sailboat tilting slightly in the wind is a reminder that bollards are posts where ships are tied at port. Placing the image in the bollard at the corner of Figueroa and Seventh marks both a boundary and the beginning of a journey:

It's not a
final distance.
This here
and now.

On the next bollard along Seventh Street, five pairs of eyes recall a conversation between Creeley and Surls regarding the incised stone looking back at the viewer:(4)

Human eyes
are lights to me
in this stone.

Described by Creeley as "simple as a classic coloring book drawing, yet incredibly subtle,"(5) a shallow serving bowl, from which civilization obtains the sustenance of life,(6) was matched by Surls to:

What's still here settles
at the edges of this
simple place still
waiting to be seen.

Three sea shells, each from a different part of the world, appear in the fourth bollard as a symbol of growth that builds upon what exited before:(7)

No one speaks
along. It
comes out
of something.

For the next bollard, Surls drew a double bed with anthropomorphic posts as a reminder of the individual's personal boundaries(8) and captioned it with:

still got

A rocking chair representing the soothing comfort from rocking that is done from the cradle to the grave,(9) is linked in the sixth bollard to:

If I sit here
long enough,
all will pass me by
one way or another.

A simple iris, given in love and death, represents in the seventh bollard the special moment:(10)

You went by so
Quickly, thinking
There's a whole world
in between.

Finally, an ivory-billed woodpecker, which has been extinct since 1936, is portrayed on the highest bollard as a symbol of what use to be,(11) and captures the conservation message underlying the title of the entire installation:

They say this
use to be
a forest
with a lake.

To prevent chipping and breakage of the stone, the monument maker from Surls' hometown was flown to Los Angeles, where he sandblasted the pink granite panels, engraved the smooth surface with images and verse, and highlighted the incisions with India ink.(12)

Surls described the installation as "the best thing I have ever done. I felt a real kinship with Creeley. I like the site; I chose the bollards; I got the site I picked; I was pleased with the poetry and I got the images I wanted."(13) As a measure of the relationship Creeley and Surls established in creating "Once There Was a Forest," they subsequently collaborated in merging seven additional poems and images on stones that have been exhibited in gallery shows.(14)


1. "Once There Was a Forest: An Installation by James Surls and Robert Creeley," Press Release, Seventh Street Plaza Associates, March 14, 1991.

2. "Report to Project Review Committee on the Citicorp Preliminary Art Plan, Phase I Central Business District Redevelopment Project-Financial Core," by John J. Tuite, Administrator, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 24, 1988.

3. "A Proposal by James Surls for Citicorp Plaza: A Collaboration With Robert Creeley," by James Surls, no date.

4. Interview with James Surls by Michael Several, April 16, 1990, see also Surls use of eyes in his June 15-August 15, 1982 show that was part of the "Currents" exhibition series of the St. Louis Art Museum.

5. "Creeley Goes Corporate," by Suzanne Lummis, Downtown News, page B-6, June 25, 1990.

6. "A Proposal by James Surls for Citicorp Plaza: A Collaboration With Robert Creeley," by James Surls, no date.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, October 3, 1988. See also minutes of August 9, 1988 and September 12, 1989 for additional references to this installation.

13. Interview with James Surls, op. cit., see also letter from James Surls to Kathy Lucoff-Saunders, August 3, 1988.

14. Interview with James Surls, by Michael Several, August 31, 1999.

Text provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1999.

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