Return Journey (as it later became known) started out as a community-initiated project to help a neighborhood keep a cherished icon and turn it into a landmark. Brackett Park in South Minneapolis was home to one of many mass-produced, large rocket-shaped playground climbing structures. Being a neighborhood with a strong history of community involvement and low turn over it seemed as though every resident had fond memories of playing in and around the “Brackett Rocket.” When the city decided to renovate the playground they determined the structure unsafe and announced it would be torn down. The community, up in arms, formed a group of activists to “Save Our Rocket!” They formed the Rocket Boosters, and demanded that the park board not destroy their rocket. One idea was to turn it into a landmark piece of public art. The Boosters banded together to raise funds for the project, hired Forecast Public Art to facilitate the selection of an artist, and after a lengthy design and approval process (the structure could no longer be climbed on), artist Randy Walker completed the project, entitled Return Journey, transforming the play structure into a rocket ship that is taking off, celebrating the power of imagination and honoring the object’s history.
Return Journey was a beautiful partnership between the neighborhood seeking to preserve the Brackett Rocket as a landmark and the artist who developed a design that reused the playground structure in a creative, meaningful way. Randy Walker went through several ideas and drawings, seeking to give a new life to this monumental “found object.” He was challenged by issues of safety, the structural integrity of the 50-year-old structure, concerns expressed by neighbors and the limited budget. He also spent time with city staff and the community group discussing the project and making revisions to address concerns.
The site for Return Journey was determined by practical considerations; while the sculpture couldn’t be returned to the exact location in which it originally stood (the playground), it made sense to place it on the corner of the park at the intersection of two busy streets. To serve as a landmark monument celebrating the spirit of the community, the high-visibility entrance to the park was the obvious choice. This site, because of its visibility, also helped protect the piece from vandalism.
Return Journey was prompted by a neighborhood group seeking help from a professional consultant to help them recycle a playground structure into a landmark sculpture. Forecast recommended three qualified candidates who lived in the surrounding community. Each of these candidates was hired to produce preliminary concepts in response to a project overview and present them to the group in an interview. The group, which included park users and youth volunteers as well as a professional curator, selected Randy Walker and he was subsequently contracted to develop his idea further and produce a scale model that could be used to help raise funds.
Return Journey required careful consideration of the 50-year-old playground structure in order to reuse it as a monumental sculpture. Randy Walker hired a structural engineer and worked with a fabricator to help modify and restore portions of the structure—he didn’t want the rocket to look like new, but he didn’t want it to be unsafe. His biggest challenge was meeting safety requirements and building codes enforced by the city. He was able to secure in-kind help from suppliers and installers (such as Rocket Crane company), and was willing to do some of the landscaping labor himself, with the help of neighborhood volunteers. It helped that Walker had experience as an architect as well as an artist, and was able to navigate smoothly the necessary paperwork.
The community initiated Return Journey. There was a great group of supporters behind the project. The Rocket Boosters became real cheerleaders and led community outreach and fundraising for the project, including creative initiatives like jewelry sales, rocket-themed events, securing sponsors and help with grant proposals. When it came time for the final celebration the neighborhood was a gracious host to a great dedication picnic with games, music, and entertainment. The final project was given to the city as a gift, which meant that additional work had to be done, and a maintenance fund had to be provided. This meant more fundraising. The Bracket Rocket Boosters also transformed into the Brackett Rocket Care Club, providing watering and weeding services to maintain the landscape around the rocket.
Return Journey was, in part, a restoration project. Saving the Brackett Park Rocket was part of the intent of the project from the outset. The artist, however, did not attempt to return it to its original glory. He intentionally wanted it to remain an artifact, a reminder of its history (including most of the graffiti that was scrawled underneath the three platforms). Once completed, Return Journey was donated as a gift to the city of Minneapolis, which has a wonderful and well-maintained collection. To accept such gifts the city requires that a maintenance fund be provided. In this case, the amount was estimated to be $10,000 (averaging $1,000 per year). In order to keep the annual cost of maintenance down, the Brackett Rocket Care Club volunteer to provide watering and weeding services to maintain the landscape around the rocket. More recently, the city received another gift to help add lighting to the rocket. With additional contributors helping after the installation, the artist has offered to add more names to the donor acknowledgment tubes (mounted over the cable turnbuckles). A video documentary of the project will be presented at the park center on the night they light Return Journey, and give the community another reason to celebrate all over again.