GULFPORT — Stephen Oliver can't help himself. He sees connections everywhere. Listening to him explain how he came to design his winning sculpture for the Gulfport Casino is to peek into a creative mind that sees endless relationships between architecture, public art, culture, the environment, peace, African-American artists, the future, family and the past. Affinity, he calls it.
Oliver's sculpture, Best Kept Secret, was the unanimous choice of the Gulfport Merchants Association in a competition that drew 16 proposals from artists across the country. The project was to design an anchor sculpture at the end of Beach Boulevard near the casino.
Oliver may be familiar to Tuesday Fresh Market attendees as the "Give Peace" T-shirt vendor. Under the name Affinity Arts, he sells his redesigned peace symbol suggesting that if "we can no longer give peace a chance, we need to make it right."
He feels that way about history as well.
"Painful pasts need to be addressed," he said. "Public art provides an opportunity to address them in a positive way."
Oliver's design for the casino incorporates an image he found researching Gulfport's history.
"It was an old black-and-white photo with a simple caption: 'Colored Dance Pavilion,' and it reminded me that Gulfport was once a little town where folks like me weren't accepted as part of the community,'' he said. "Now, with its reputation for acceptance, it's hard to believe Gulfport was once so segregated.
"That change, that growth in the community is what I want my sculpture to celebrate — a synthesis of Gulfport's past and present."
Though he grew up in New Jersey, the family frequently spent summers in St. Petersburg visiting his grandparents.
"My grandfather was amazing. He was a jack-of-all trades who found work wherever he could get it. In the 1920s and '30s, he was a bricklayer and was responsible for laying many of Gulfport's brick streets."
Since earning an undergraduate degree in architecture, and a master's in furniture design, Oliver has immersed himself in projects that focus on all aspects of design. His work includes the Museum of African Culture in Portland, Maine, an exhibition for the Children's Museum and public art for the Convergence Festival, both in Providence, R.I.
"Studying architecture taught me that good design is more than an image,'' he said. "It's about the environment, the geology, the history, the way light moves, and the relationship between space, form and function.
"Everything is taken into consideration."
The competition for the project sparked Oliver's creative process and tapped his artistic, architectural and planning skills.
"I wanted to create something that made efficient use of space, that was able to shed water, reflect light, and provide a focal point for the community," he said, adding that it also needed to complement the casino without detracting from its historical design.
Facilitating a public art installation at the casino had been a long-held dream of the Gulfport Merchants Association, according to board member and past president Mike McCue.
"The city's recent commitment to public art in Clymer Park, and our desire to give back to the community came together in the casino project," he said. "Stephen's was so far ahead of the pack it was a no-brainer."
"It's not just a piece of sculpture," said Owen Pach, who served on the design selection committee. "The work has special meaning to the artist and to the greater Gulfport community."
Before Oliver submitted his final idea for the sculpture, he was inspired to write a poem:
"To cross the gulf be our port of call, leaving a wake of peace and love for all;
All hands together joined to row, make rainbows of gauntlet as they go"
Visitors will find that poem as they peer into the sculpture soon to be installed at the end of Beach Boulevard, and Oliver hopes they will be reminded of Gulfport's beauty, its history and its promising future.
"The connections are everywhere," he said.
Diane Craig can be reached at [email protected]