A! Magazine for the Arts

Caterpillars Back in Downown Bristol

November 17, 2009

*** This story appeared Nov. 1 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

BRISTOL, Va. – A trio of tiny bronze caterpillars, abducted four months ago from State Street sidewalks, were replaced Halloween morning just as 250 candy-crazed children swarmed the street.

The sculptures were ripped from their mountings in June, just weeks after they debuted as three stops on a 10-part kiddie scavenger hunt through downtown Bristol.

"These are the significantly beefed up models," artist Val Lyle said as she dunked two 6-inch, stainless-steel bolts protruding from a cocoon's undercarriage into a foot of wet concrete. It was her first replacement of the day, on a guardrail at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and State Street, and she almost dared the burglars to try it again.

"If they want to take this now, I recommend tying a chain to this guardrail and taking the whole thing."

Transformers and Incredible Hulks and one cowboy with a painted-on beard lumbered by as Lyle said they specifically chose the holiday because it, like the Crawl, was a celebration of youth.

The Caterpillar Crawl, inspired by the children's book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," sends kids down State Street with a lime green map and a list of clues. Along the way, they find 10 little bronze sculptures tucked away, half in Tennessee and half in Virginia.

Three were stolen one June night from the Virginia side: the guardrail cocoon, a chubby caterpillar on the steps of the Wachovia ATM and one lounging on an orange at the corner outside Java J's.

The Junior League set up an anonymous tip line and scoured local pawn shops and scrap metal joints, but despite promises of amnesty and rewards for information, the critters never resurfaced.

Shortly after the heist, Junior League president Katy Sikorski said the critters cost $500 each.

"We're going to replace them, and we're going to keep replacing them," she pledged. "That's $1,500 from our budget that would go to hungry kids, promoting children's literacy, to children's classrooms. It's the pits, it truly is the pits."

Back then, Lyle warned of the long and very laborious replacement process, as each piece is handmade and takes weeks to finish. So the crew set out to create a temporary fix so kids could keep doing the hunt.

First they tried laminating photographs that they taped, glued, then liquid nailed to the sites. But each time, the stand-in was stolen, or blew away, within hours.

Then Lyle created replacements in epoxy – little wiggly, worm-like creatures – and finally, the caterpillars got some peace.

"They're ugly enough," Lyle said. "I guess nobody wanted them."

Lyle said she's going to leave the epoxy versions in place, roughly adhered inches away from their bronze counterparts, as something of a reminder of how hard they worked to keep the hunt going.

"If you've ever actually seen the kids doing the Caterpillar Crawl – it's awesome," Lyle said, after moving on to the caterpillar home at the Wachovia ATM.

A crew of children stopped by to inquire, then got distracted by a dog in a skirt and a wig.

Lyle just smiled, and said she's glad to have the caterpillars back.

"Thank you for replacing them," said passer-by Fara Childers, the mother of a 5-month-old pirate and a 9-year-old grim reaper. "We've been looking forward to it. It's just awful that a few people in a community can bring such disappointment to these kids."

Lyle's "make-it-work man," Anthony Dean, drilled a hole a foot deep into the brick, kicking up red dust. He said Lyle had been bent on replacing them, and he wasn't going to try to talk her out of it.

"If there's one thing I've learned, it's don't try to change an artist's mind," Dean said. "If they tell you to make it green with pink polka dots, just get out your polka dot brush whether you want to or not."