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The Angel of Merle Hay Mall

I like to ask my peers from Iowa if they remember the crazy statue from the Merle Hay Mall. Every one of them does, and to be honest, I’m not surprised. You don’t forget something like that. A behemoth of metal and stone, what came to be known as ‘The Angel of Merle Hay’ was described by most as anything but an angelic.

It was the centerpiece for the shopping center; a larger than life naked man encased in bronze. Perched atop a platform of smooth brick, he rode hunched over on a comically small tricycle; limbs jutting out in odd angles, his face screwed into a look of angry determination, lips pursed as though expelling a forceful breath of air. I use ‘comically’ only as the loosest of descriptors, because the reality was that this sculpture was terrifying. Adding to the bizarre nature of his presence were two giant wings that jutted from his back; resembling nothing close to feathers or the leathery wings of bats, they seemed more an extension of obscurity than forms of function. His hair was wild, his genitals exposed beneath the curve of his strained posture; to say that he was intimidating was a bit of an understatement to anyone, much less the child-sized version of myself that became acquainted with him.

Patrons of the Merle Hay Mall called him a demon, an outlandish eyesore unfit for the eyes of mall-goers and their children. People walking by would give it a wide berth, out of state visitors would gawk and take pictures. In my youngest of days it was a thing of nightmares, but as I got older, I joined a smattering of random children in scaling the platform that presented the sculpture. The smooth bricks created a perfect slide, and the figure’s nudity presented me with the irresistible opportunity to embarrass my mom. This was achieved by routinely spanking the sculpture on our frequent trips to the mall.

My blatant lack of respect aside, I often wondered what brought such a creature to our humble shopping center. Admittedly it was nothing like anything I would expect to see in a mall. Perhaps he would have been better housed by our community art center; there dwelled a cornucopia of creepy paintings and unsettling figures. But here was our angel, who considering the controversy he stirred up amongst the soccer moms of our quiet city, was hardly an angel at all.

My relationship with the ‘angel’ was one marked in silence and introspection. “It” became “him” as I fabricated a story that revolved around an angel who had tried to escape heaven but was turned to stone instead. Maybe he had always been there, and the mall was simply built around him. Maybe he had stolen the tricycle and that is what cursed him to an eternity of being on display for some old mall in the suburbs of Iowa. …A dismal fate indeed.

I fathomed a day where the sculpture would spring to life, immediately beginning to pedal off his platform. He would circle the center court, beating his wings, up-down, puffing air through his lungs in huge breaths, trying vainly to take off. The notion was haunting. And yet, I never got a feeling of maliciousness from the sculpture. Disregarding my ominous visions and the accusations of others, I never really derived a sense of evil from it. I grew up, continued to spank his behind for probably longer than was age-permissible, and my theories on his origins dissolved as he became just a normal part of the mall to me.

And then one day, he was gone. There was no dramatic, otherworldly exit, he was just gone. I had no one to ask where he went, or why, and truth be told I gave it no sense of priority to find those answers.

It’s been about eleven years since its disappearance, and six years since I left Des Moines. I’m unsure as to what possessed me, but last summer I began to fill my co-workers’ heads with stories of the crazy statue from Merle Hay Mall. I became obsessed with trying to find the artist. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of help that came from googling ‘angel statue at Merle Hay Mall’. With the help of my co-worker, Karen, we turned up with a name: Mark Jacobsen.
Inflated with a personal sense of victory and running off the high of uncovering this part of my past, I emailed Mr. Jacobsen and unleashed my memories upon him. I regaled him with my impressions of the sculpture, owned up to the immature spankings, and then fancifully clicked the send button, feeling sated just to have found the creator of the infamous angel. He even had a name – UpDown.

See UpDown in his original context here! You can even see my original letter to Mr. Jacobsen at the bottom.

It took me completely by surprise, when, three days later, Mr. Jacobsen sent me an email in reply –thanking me for sending him my memories of UpDown. He informed me that he had created it at the age of 26, and at the time the controversy surrounding it derailed his artistic career for a time.

It’s incredible. Being a graduate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, I’ve grown up in a time where it is the goal of Fine Art majors to create a stir with their art – and as far as grades go, they are praised. And yet, here I had stumbled across an artist who had done just that, and yet the time period and the town of UpDown’s origins were exactly what stunted a piece like this from becoming more than a memory of mall patrons.

I was frankly honored to receive such a cordial reply from Mr. Jacobsen, furthermore he offered to put me in touch with UpDown’s current owner in the hopes that maybe I would get to see him again. I was floored – heck YES I wanted to see him again! Thusly, I was sent the email address of UpDown’s current keeper. …And then I chickened out and never touched it. UpDown again reverted to being just an enthusiastic story that I told to anyone who would listen.

It’s Easter time, ten months after I discovered the angel’s true identity. And three days before I made my holiday pilgrimage down to my Iowan family, I received a strange email:

“Are you the same Jade who spanked UpDown’s fanny while he lived at Merle Hay Mall?

If so, I’m offering an invitation to visit him again.

Jerri”

Whether through act of fate or incredible coincidence, UpDown’s current holder found my comment on Mr. Jacobsen’s website, and googled me just to offer me a gracious invitation to see the infamous statue, which she dubbed ‘Merle’ in reference to the mall. With her address and permission to wander into her back yard, my excitement to see my family was suddenly replaced with my excitement to see the bronzed and naked angel that lurked in the stories of my youth. How could I not??

Co-workers and friends got a reprise of my enthusiasm for a memory that only I had. I called my mom, who happily agreed to accompany me on this journey into the past – I mean, she was ultimately the one who suffered most from having the daughter with a flair for smacking bronze behinds.

It was a cloudy Saturday that we trekked to a lovely part of Des Moines in search of UpDown (AKA Merle). As Jerri had described, we could see him from the street, and I believe at that point my vocabulary became reduced to “oh my god” and “there he is”.

He was no longer elevated by the stone platform, but instead was nestled amidst flowers. Brought to ground level now, he was certainly smaller than the image in my mind’s eye – then again, considering that most of my impressions of him came from when I was a lot more vertically challenged, it’s not such a surprise.

Perhaps just slightly bigger than life-size, UpDown remained mostly as I remembered. I was enthralled to see him through the eyes of an adult, where finally I could appreciate the care and effort that had gone into his creation. Gone were my childhood fosterlings of horror, replaced with the feeling of approaching an old friend. Considering the moments he and I had once shared, coupled with the times I spent whiling away on who he was, I felt our relationship more than one of just passing fancy. I circled him, far too intimidated to touch this time around. Instead I filled my phone with photos and grinned madly at the circumstance. Back in June, I had sent that email with no expectations – for all I knew, UpDown was in California somewhere and I’d never see him again. But here he was, not a figment of my imagination or an obscure memory – he was real and safe and no doubt loved by the lucky woman who houses him; keeping the uproar of Merle Hay treasured and remembered.

I hope I am doing my part to keep him remembered too. As quiet and arguably dull as a place like Des Moines can be, UpDown is something I’m truly proud to say was from our modest community. He kept us from being ‘normal’, and prevented trips to Merle Hay Mall from being anything but typical. He made us special. And while he may have caused a ruckus for Mr. Jacobsen at the time, when I ask Des Moines natives if they recall ‘that naked guy on the trike’ in Merle Hay, they always say yes. He may not have been the prettiest of angels, he might not have been an angel at all, but he knew how to make an impression.

You would think that after embarking on such a trip down memory lane that I would be sated in knowing this piece of my childhood is safe. And yet, I hope the future will leave me with yet an opportunity to see him, if only to give my two best friends, fellow native Iowans, a chance to remember a chunk of our local history.

I humbly thank both Mr. Jacobsen and Jerri, who through one way or another reunited me with UpDown – aka Merle. I would furthermore like to thank Mr. Jacobsen for his original contribution to the suburbs of Iowa. I was caught completely unaware by realizing how much UpDown meant to me, but I couldn’t have asked for this all to play out in a more amazing manner. This was by far, the coolest Easter weekend I’ve ever spent in Iowa.

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