Jack’s Back: Donkey Sculpture Returns to Hillsborough on Permanent Loan

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A life-size metal donkey that captured the hearts of the public has returned to Hillsborough.

Technically, Jack’s only grazing in his new locale next to the Eno River Parking Deck in the downtown. The sculpture, created by artist Jonathan Bowling of Greenville, N.C., is on permanent loan for public display from Hillsborough residents Gail and Phil Cooley. He was installed April 15.

“I think that Jack brings a lot to our town,” Hillsborough Planner Stephanie Trueblood said. “He seems tall and proud — a dignified donkey. But he’s got a little bit of attitude too. I love the way he stands at the Gateway Center and greets everyone who arrives in Hillsborough.”

The sculpture — made from reclaimed metal, including antique farm machinery — isn’t new to Hillsborough. Jack was one of six sculptures exhibited last year as part of the town’s first sculpture tour. At that time, he was placed in front of the Masonic Lodge and won the People’s Choice Award in the tour primarily organized by Gail Cooley.

It was his popularity with the public that spurred Cooley to coordinate with the parking deck owners, George Horton and Jim Parker, to bring Jack back to Hillsborough as a way to perk up the parking deck. Cooley began thinking about grants and other sources of funding and called the sculptor to check on Jack’s availability.

“I think Phil heard me talking to him and decided to take the donkey by the ears, maybe to facilitate this whole thing,” Cooley said of her husband, who is the primary organizer for the downtown Last Fridays events this year.

When Cooley arrived home on Christmas Day, she found Jack in her yard — a gift to her from her husband.

“We knew he would be a good fit,” she said of Jack and his new public home. “We knew that everybody in the town already liked him.”

Plus there’s Jack’s historic value, a good attribute considering he now stands in the heart of Hillsborough’s Historic District.

“He’s made of antique materials, so he’s kind of historic,” Cooley said.

The donkey sculpture is made from a combination of antique farm machinery and demolition scrap from a warehouse fire near the artist’s studio.

“Many of the materials are from the turn of the last century, which Mr. Bowling feels is appropriate for depicting an animal so intertwined with our agrarian past,” reads the artist’s statement. “The wooden elements help convey the age with a surprising combination or delicacy and strength.”

Before being installed, the sculpture had to receive a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Hillsborough Historic District Commission. Jack is the first piece of public art to be reviewed under the commission’s art guidelines, which were developed in 2010 following the approval and installation of artwork in front of the Orange County Public Library on West Margaret Lane.

“We found Jack to be an exceptional candidate,” said Candice Cobb, a Hillsborough resident and member of the commission. “Jack gives us these wonderful recycled materials. It’s all metal and wood. It fits in great. The location is great too. He adds a perfect spark of creativity and character to the corner.”

In reviewing applications for public art, the Historic District Commission must ensure the proposed piece’s location, mass and scale, materials, durability and manner of installation are compatible with the character of the Historic District.

“We’re not charged with judging the content,” Cobb said, “because art is so subjective.”

The commission does require that accepted public art have signage with information on the piece and artist.

“We found Jack to be a wonderful addition to the character of the Historic District because he accentuates the character of the district,” said Cobb, who has nominated Jack for the commission’s preservation awards, given out in May during National Preservation Month. “He’s very noble. We’re so glad Jack’s back.”

Photo Captions

Top and bottom photos: Jack grazes in his new home next to the Eno River Parking Deck.

Middle photo: Jack with Gail Cooley while in front of the Masonic Lodge during the 2011 Hillsborough Sculpture Tour. 


Art Guidelines

The Historic District Commission’s art guidelines may be viewed on pages 58-59 of the Hillsborough Historic District Design Guidelines. The guidelines are in the chapter titled “Historic District Setting.”

Information on art of a minor nature is available on Page 74, listed as Item 31 under Minor Works in the Appendixes. Minor works include the installation or alteration of art that includes free-standing sculpture and wall-mounted murals, mosaics or metal installations that are not affixed to a building or site. It does not apply to common and seasonal decorations and garden accents.

The Design Guidelines are available on the Historic District Commission page of the town’s website.

Sculpture Tour

Gail Cooley, the primary organizer for the 2011 Hillsborough Sculpture Tour, has applied for a Hillsborough Tourism Board grant for a sculpture tour next year. If funding is available, the tour would start at the end of April 2013 and last through December.

“Sculpture is accessible. It’s appealing. You can touch it. I think it brings art to a human level,” Cooley said. “The comings and goings of the sculpture tour make you stop and look twice at things you have become familiar with. It makes you look at things in a different way.”