What's Up With Those Zigzag Sculptures on Cocoanut Avenue?
During my breakup with N. Tamiami Trail due to all that icky roundabout construction, I got to know Cocoanut Avenue. Just one street parallel and west, it could, in large part, take me to the same places. Plus, the residential road was more soft-spoken, with its sense of humor and love of art.
Cocoanut Avenue is the backbone of the Central Cocoanut Historic District, just north of downtown Sarasota, and it’s dotted with colorful, quaint homes and lots of happy doggies on walks with their humans. There’s a laughing Buddha across from Pioneer Park, and—seemingly appearing out of the ether—zigzag, vertical sculptures in the front of a short row of homes on the next block north.
Made of welded steel and sometimes aluminum, the black and white ones are cows. “People say they don’t look that way,” but “that’s up to interpretation,” says local artist John Dehn, 74, who crafted and lives with them at the big yellow house on the corner of 13th Street and Cocoanut Avenue, which he bought in 2011.
Inspired by his time as a farm owner in Maine, he made “this one series, and they’re painted like cows because I came to like them so much,” he says. He also owns the two homes next door—because “every artist has another job,” he says—and has planted several of the curious sculptures on the front yard of each. One of the renters is his daughter, whose childhood ballet recital inspired the piece that’s not a zigzag. It’s silver and 8 feet tall, with the circle cutouts and two figures, one representing his daughter, that spin in the middle when the wind blows through them, making them dance.
Dehn says it was just one of those memories he reminisced about. “I remind her of it to this day if it happens to come up, but I don't think she thinks much about it," he says. "It was just an idea—then it came to light in the mind and came out in a creative process."
So what do the neighbors think?
“They're not my taste, but I think they're a positive addition to Cocoanut Avenue,” says Kittie Kelly, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. “To me, it was important that someone saved original houses and made them whimsical, like he did. There’s certainly lots of curiosity surrounding them.”
Indeed, Dehn says people leave notes in his mailbox stop and knock on his door to ask, "Why are these here? Did you do this?"
It's simple. “Because I can put them here,” he says. “Art is always something people should be able to look at. You shouldn't have to pay to see it." Sometimes he takes a functional approach to his work, as he did with his mailbox, after a car accident that wrecked his previous one, which was more traditional. The new one is made of colorful I-beams. "Now if someone hits it, they'll remember it," he says.
Dehn, who is also a Vietnam vet, adds, “The creative process helped me get through many things. It was cheaper than medication. It’s like therapy for me. I saved a lot of money not seeing a psychiatrist.”
Dehn grew up in New York City, moved to Maine, then relocated to Sarasota in 1985 thanks to a scholarship to attend Ringling College of Art and stayed. In the late '90s, he had a studio and workspace in artist hotspot Towles Court, but eventually left, since “it was consuming most of my time and I couldn't really produce there because of the foot traffic. I was too busy talking and I needed a studio where I could work," he says. Now his studio is on the corner of 40th Street and Royal Palm, where you’ll see other landmark steel sculptures out front.
Dehn's work is also among the City of Sarasota's public art collection. You can see People's Place, created in 1999, on the corner of Main Street and Orange Avenue. It was originally commissioned by local commercial property bigwig Dr. Mark Kauffman, who gifted it to the city in 2000. Another one is in the sculpture garden at Art Center Sarasota.
As for the sculptures on Cocoanut Avenue, Dehn freshened them up with a new coat of paint just the other day. "They become so personal, you want to take care of them," he says.