Scottish sculptor Rob Mulholland believes art “is not just about art, it’s about society.”
School children helped him gather 300,000 tin cans to create his first public art in Glasgow in 1991. Titled “The Green Man,” the piece helped jumpstart recycling.
“I was looking at what was going on in my world and I wanted to respond to that,” the artist said.
Fast forward through the environmental art he’s since installed, mostly in public spaces, for commissions by BBC London as well as France, Russia, Germany, Korea – and now Portsmouth.
Our non-profit, the Elizabeth River Project, unveiled Mulholland’s first installation in the US on Nov. 20 during our annual RIVERFest, which took place this year at the sculpture’s location, Paradise Creek Nature Park.
What a soaring moment it was for me, to see this world class art, winking in the sun along our restored wetland at the park.
We then proceeded — with the artist, school children, hundreds and hundreds of guests, including US Rep. Bobby Scott — from the art to the top of the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in a march celebrating community and art.
More than 100 images of great blue herons are now grouped with four human figures, standing as guardians of the wetlands and wildlife, in our permanent park installation called “One Flock.” The figures were constructed at two local steel fabrication shops (big thanks to Metal Concepts and East Coast Steel Fabrications, who helped hugely with costs).
Marine grade steel was polished to mirror the environment where the pieces will be placed.
Though it’s not his only medium, mirrored steel is one of Mulholland’s best known approaches. We fell in love with this approach after seeing photos of Mulholland’s 2009 “Vestige,” set in a forest in Scotland. The polished images reflect back the green ferns and leafy branches of the forest, creating a mystical aura, as if the humans are separate but also one with nature.
When the sculptures create this kind of reflection of their natural surroundings, the result is “a great visual metaphor for connecting people with their environment,” Mulholland explained at a lecture he presented for us in October at the Chrysler Museum of Art, one of several public appearances here.
For “One Flock,” the sculpture assemblage reflects the waters of Paradise Creek, a tributary to the Elizabeth where Elizabeth River Project and partners have focused intensive restoration since 2001, turning some of the “worst of the worst” (EPA Superfund sites) into wildlife meccas, and more recently adding the new 40 acre nature park.
At Elizabeth River Project, we believe that art and science are both essential — in fact their marriage is essential — to inspire a community to rally around the clean up of an urban river. So it’s a huge boost to have been awarded $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund the installation by Mulholland through their Our Town grant program, intended to inspire community change – in our case, urban river revival.
At our festival, participants carried dozens of paper cutouts of the herons on a three-mile walk from the park to the summit of the Jordan Bridge, closed to vehicle traffic for pedestrian safety. Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast helped make them and handed out cookies at the top.
In keeping with the marriage of art and science, NOAA’s Office of Education was also on hand, announcing a $500,000 grant for Elizabeth River Project to educate 21,000 school children over the next three years at the nature park and our Learning Barge.
As for the art, this is not the first sculpture the Elizabeth River Project has added to the 40-acre park, a partnership with the City of Portsmouth. In the entry circle rises another steel sculpture, this one by Peruvian artist Peruko Ccopacatty. He made it in the 1980s from scrap metal he gathered at nearby Peck Iron & Metal, also located on Paradise Creek.
The theme of that piece still rings true today: “Righting the Balance.”
Find out more at ElizabethRiver.org, or call 757-399-7487.