the latest

« Arts

Sticking It to the Hyde Park Fork

Dale Whistler celebrates the grill's 30th anniversary
Wayne Alan Brenner, 11:27am, Thu. Jan. 3, 2013
When you come to the fork in the road
– take it.
That fork in the road, that gigantic silver utensil, like something stabbing through the meat of our neighborhood dreams.

The fork's long been a sculptural landmark for Hyde Park Bar & Grill right there on Duval, rising smack dab in the central Austin area that you might own a house in if only you could win that damned lottery.

The fork itself was fabricated by Richard Heinichen in '82, but it's never just standing there naked. The tines of the fork don't merely rake the roof-level air – they're always impaling an additional sculpture that's changed a few times each year. A Valentine's heart; a pair of longhorn horns; a giant cupcake; on and on, over the decades. And now, the latest addition impaled upon those towering tines: A sort of variety show of objects, with a big fat 30 in the middle of it all.

Happy birthday, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, from Dale Whistler – the man who's created toppings for the fork for almost three decades now.

(Whistler's also the man who created that veiny, muscle-bulging arm for Hyde Park Gym; and Nightwing, the spinning bat sculpture where the Congress Avenue Bridge meets Barton Springs Road; and that big, green, pizza-pimping Mangiasaurus; and – well, you get the idea: The man's done some things; the artist's been working.)

And how'd he get this forky gig in the first place?

"Bick Brown is the owner of Hyde Park Bar & Grill," says Whistler. "And we shared a haircutter back then – Dawn Mckinney Loewen – and she matched us up. And it's a little odd, but I've never crossed paths with Richard Heinichen. I've always wanted to meet him. I'm impressed with his work in the fork, but I have no idea what he thinks of my additions."

And is the creator of these Austin icons someone who was created by Austin? Is this river city where Whistler's urge toward art was nurtured?

"Well, I love Austin," he says. "And, as so many people do, I stayed after graduating from UT – so I've lived here since 1977. But my dad was an Air Force pilot, so I grew up in England, California, and Texas. My mother was an artist, and I had the great fortune to spend time as an appreciative youngster, looking at art in the Louvre and the Prado. It can't be underestimated, the impact of exposing children to great art." The artist is certain of this, watches me until I nod in agreement. "My first memory of making art was coloring in coloring books on the floor while my mother ironed," he says. "I remember looking at the coloring books and thinking 'These are not very well drawn' and 'When I'm a grown-up, I'm going to draw better coloring books.'"

The murals that Whistler has created around town – for Fiesta and Run-Tex and Esther's Pool and others – are evidence that he could do just that. But when did the coloring-book critic start working on 3-D, sculptural works?

"As a ten-year-old, I used to carve figures from Ivory soap and paint them realistically," he says. "I also spent hours perfecting plastic model airplanes and cars, and I thoroughly enjoyed clay sculpture in school. The Hyde Park Bar & Grill was actually my first large-sculpture commission – it was a hand holding the fork. The idea was proposed by a fourth grader in a contest at the local elementary school."

And in this latest piece, this 30th anniversary commemoration now improving the skyview along Duval, how did the artist decide what would be included atop the tines? How'd he deal with all the … details?

"Initially I had a vision of the '30' being made of food items a la Giuseppe Arcimboldo," says Whistler. "But, as is often the case, the artistic vision comes easier than the sculpture. I tried to think first of items on the menu, but had to reach further than that to fill in odd shapes in the numbers. Yeah – this piece was a great deal more detailed than the average Fork Art. Even as an experienced sculptor I often underestimate the work required to realize my artistic vision, and in this project I had help from Jacqueline May, Ryan Adams, and Micah Sutton."

As they say: There is no 'I' in T-E-A-M.

There's no 'I' in F-O-R-K, either –
but the big utensil's still there, adorned by Whistler's work,
waiting for U to eye it whenever you're in the neighborhood.

Next in Arts: Not Just Some Clown from New York City »