Chain Reaction’s biggest problem may have been it’s simply not pretty.
The 26-foot mushroom cloud of copper and steel chains perpetually exploding outside the Civic Center is meant as a warning to save the world. Instead, for the past six years local peace activists have dedicated themselves to saving the statue itself.
“It’s not beautiful when you look at it,” admitted the artist’s son, David Conrad, in an interview with the Daily Press. “It kind of hits you in the gut a little bit. That’s the point.”
When three-story nuclear blast was originally offered to the City in 1988, citizens were invited to weigh in on a model displayed inside the lobby of City Hall. Out of 1,122 people surveyed, 730, or 65 percent, said the City should decline the statue. The Arts Commission eventually voted to take the gift.
Even activist Jerry Rubin, who has led the charge to save the statue since 2011, says his own wife’s initial reaction to the sculpture was not exactly one of love.
“Even she had the initial shock you feel when you first realize it’s not a tree,” Rubin said. Not only has she warmed up to the statue, Rubin says they both feel it’s a valuable spark that leads to conversation about nuclear disarmament.
“Of course, there were people who wanted this piece melted down into scrap metal,” Rubin said. “Some people hate it. That’s the way art is. There are a number of art piece around town that aren’t my favorite but I still urge the Council to maintain them.”
Designed and sculpted by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Paul Conrad, the sculpture is meant as a jarring reminder of the threat of nuclear war. The artist was known to court controversy while working as the chief editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times for three decades. So much so, his depictions of the president’s ultimate downfall during the Watergate scandal infamously got him added to Nixon’s Enemies List.
In 2012, about two years after the artist’s death, the Arts Commission recommended to remove the statue. Official criticism of the statue has always been structural rather than superficial. Staff reports from the time assert the statue was supposed to be made out of bronze instead of fiberglass, that the artist never obtained a building permit and that the final structure deviated from the engineered design – raising questions about the blast’s integrity. The City estimated fixing the statue could cost up to $423,000.
“I always knew from the beginning it wasn’t unsafe,” Conrad said who is a mechanical engineer. “I know it was overbuilt. I can’t say whether that was their true problem with it or not.”
Conrad sees the statue as an important part to his father’s legacy. While his cartoons addressing social justice depicted history, the concern over nuclear arms endures. President Donald Trump once tweeted “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
“The threat of nuclear war is just as present if not more present now than it was 25 years ago when my dad put up the sculpture,” Conrad said.
The threat to the statue ignited a movement in itself. Petitions were circulated, social media campaigns launched, donors called. In the end, activists succeeded in raising $100,000 to restore the statue and got even it landmarked.
“I feel like we out lasted the City,” Conrad said. “At first it was very difficult to get progress but at one point I realized there was no stopping it.”
A “Peace Garden” and solar lights now surround the recently refurbished mushroom cloud outside the Civic Center. A half-decade of activism culminated in a rededication ceremony Monday night. Current and former City leaders, the Conrad family, art enthusiasts, environmentalists and historians gathered to speak about the statue, give out sunflowers and make a peace circle around the art.
Now with their statue safe, activists hope to use the grounds as a gathering place for demonstrations in the future.
“As they say, all’s well that ends well,” Rubin said