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Cheerful Chicken and Prancing Cow Touch Off a Village Clash

Art: Alexander Calder designed the pieces in 1971, reportedly to celebrate the town's anniversary. But they disappeared, only to turn up recently in the home of an official's widow.

July 19, 1998|HELEN O'NEILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ROXBURY, Conn. — It began with a cheerful chicken and a prancing cow, hammered into shape with an artist's tool and airmailed from France to Connecticut.

Then things turned nasty.

"This is a terrible statement to make," says Jim Kling, pausing to be sure he really wants to make it, "but maybe Harold thought they would be worth something down the road and that's why he held on to them."

He is talking about Harold Birchall, who ran the town for 12 years, who can no longer defend himself, although everyone says he had no trouble airing his opinions when he was alive.

In 1971, Birchall had very definite opinions about the aluminum chicken and cow mailed to him by Alexander Calder, the famously whimsical sculptor, his neighbor and friend.

"He said he didn't like them, that they were inappropriate for the town," Kling says, recalling Birchall's look of disdain as he pulled the small metal etchings from his pocket.

"I said, 'Well, Harold, that's your privilege, but I think you should put it to the committee.' "

The committee was in the throes of planning Roxbury's 175th anniversary. As part of the celebrations, First Selectman Birchall asked Calder to design a commemorative town seal--something historic, something refined, something in keeping with the leafy gentility of this tiny New England town, home to farmers and writers and movie stars.

Calder readily obliged. He sent the art from France, where he lived half the year.

Whether the committee ever voted on the work is anyone's guess. No minutes or members survive, and Calder himself died in 1976.

But questions that have divided this town thrive: about whether the art was a gift to the town or to Birchall, about its value today in a world where Calder pieces fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, about whether to call in the lawyers.

And the most perplexing question of all: Whatever happened to the cheerful chicken and the prancing cow?

Kling says he asked Birchall the same question when they bumped into each other in the market a few months after their initial encounter.

"Jim, I've lost them," Kling recalls Birchall saying.

"Ah, now, Harold," Kling replied, "never try to out-con a con man."

Kling, now 82 and long retired from the busy life he led as a consultant, forgot about the Calder pieces until 1996, when the committee planning the town's 200th anniversary asked for his help. Kling relayed the story of Birchall's loss.

"Malarkey," scoffs Kling, "especially when you consider where they finally showed up."

They finally showed up on the living room wall of an old red farmhouse on Painter Hill Road, across a field from the Calder house. Dusted, framed and well cared for, they were clearly a family treasure. A Birchall family treasure.

They were spotted after Nancy Meinke and another committee member traipsed over to the farm to talk to Birchall's widow, Jean.

By all accounts, Jean Birchall is a shy woman, easily intimidated, far less sure of her enemies and friends than her late and strong-willed husband. He died of a heart attack while shaving in 1985.

No one suggests that Jean Birchall knew anything about the origins of the chicken and the cow, which she found in a drawer while cleaning out Harold's things.

"We pleaded with her to consider giving them to the town," says Meinke. "We told her they belong in Town Hall."

Jean Birchall protested that the pieces were gifts from a dear family friend. Everyone in town knew how generous Calder was with his work, she said. Why, some people received so many little wire knickknacks and brightly colored drawings, they threw them away. She was sorry for their trouble, but she was adamant. The chicken and cow belonged in her family.

She did agree to lend the pieces to the committee for 24 hours--long enough to get wax molds made at the local pewter factory.

The bicentennial was a roaring success: barbecues and bands and fireworks. The town was awash in Calder colors, red and black and yellow, and in the Calder motif. Silver pins, T-shirts, key chains, posters: Around every barn and pasture, it seemed, and in every celebrity mansion, peeped a cheerful chicken and a prancing cow.

A funny thing happened during the revelries. People grew attached to the town's new symbol. They swelled with pride that a famous artist had designed it especially for them. They talked about the chicken and the cow as though they owned them. They began to feel that, in fact, they did own them.

A month or two after the celebrations, Meinke and Kling pleaded with Jean Birchall again. Would she at least consider leaving the chicken and the cow to the town in her will?

This time, other family members were present. Words were exchanged. Lawyers were named. This time, there weren't any promises or pleasantries when they left.

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