Thoughts on Public Sculpture and the Big Picture

As an artist who works in the public realm, often in collaboration with my partner, it is continually challenging to keep track of the big picture. That is, it is difficult to see how what we are doing is making a difference amid so much political and environmental distress globally. Because our work is known for its community engagement, site-specificity and/or site-responsiveness, each project is tailor fit to constantly changing parameters. Each project is unique, requiring a unique response to a unique place within a unique community. Consequently, once we have been awarded a commission and designed a sculpture or similar ‘place-making’ intervention, we soon become embroiled in the business of construction management. Our public projects tend to take about a year and a half from conception to installation, and we typically manage between 3-5 projects concurrently, each in a different phase of development, so project management becomes quite complex and accounts for the bulk of our work life. Our success in landing new projects is a function of our ability to align our objectives with those of a funding entity, so the narrative we create to describe our work is always in flux, and always at the service of the requirements of Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Fortunately, we have applied for enough public art projects over the past two decades to discern consistent patterns in RFPs, and have grown more adept at broadening our narrative to fit most occasions. Also, we have successfully produced enough work to have earned a solid reputation, and the intrinsic value of our collective body of work is beginning to speak for itself. Still, I sometimes lose sight of what compels the work to begin with, short of earning us a living.

Every so often, when I find a lull between active projects, I attempt to step back, take perspective, and clarify for myself how our work relates to the Big Picture. A couple of years ago I had the insight that the consistency in our work is not in the final product but in the process, in our ‘work style’. We have developed a style of collaboration that enables us to invent within very tight parameters, following a set of skills we have honed over the decades through direct experience, through trial and error. It’s almost akin to how scientists can deploy the basic tenets of Scientific Method to any experiment, regardless of the specific parameters or desired outcome. Granted, the success and range of our public projects also require skill at design, fabrication, communications, as well as knowledge of materials, art history and cultural geography, but none of these things matter if the idea underlying any of our public sculptures fails to resonate. It’s the ideas that connect to the Big Picture, along with how the ideas are conveyed. In many cases, I just realized, how ideas are conveyed IS the idea underlying all of our projects. How ideas are conveyed is perhaps our most compelling and useful contribution to the Big Picture, to making a difference amidst turmoil and chaos. How ideas are conveyed is also the most elusive or non-obvious aspect of our built works, especially when we are in the midst of realizing them, which is pretty much all of the time. So, I’d like to break down the consistencies underlying How Ideas are Conveyed in our public artworks:

  • create social hub
  • reveal hidden histories as discovery
  • provide detail where it is lacking and unexpected
  • provide high quality craft in public places as a radical intervention
  • create community and friendships with all stakeholders
  • create conditions that allow communities a sense of authorship and ownership
  • make things that encourage multi-sensory interaction
  • make things that improve with age and use and that allow for repair
  • make things that mimic an encounter in nature
  • trust people to make connections and invent their own narratives
  • make things with children in mind
  • make things with sense memory in mind

I’ve realized that people often bring their own ideas to our public artworks, especially children, and that our original intention is less important. Our projects become like public placeholders, or receptacles for accumulated, collective memories and experiences. They function by simply encouraging and trusting people to do what they do best, which is to interact in public, to engage in the built and natural environment with all of their senses and receptors open. Our projects have origins in the types of experiences we (and people in general) seek when traveling, when open to new ideas and perspectives. Our projects are designed to bring out the best in people. This is how they consistently relate to the Big Picture.

IN A NUTSHELL:

In a world that is increasingly fractured and disruptive, Wowhaus projects are like islands of cohesion and inspiration. Wowhaus projects demonstrate that key elements of the built environment, however small, can be deeply integrated, can be orienting instead of disorienting, connecting us to place, to each other, and to layers of stories, both real and imagined.

 

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