USF's marine art exhibit features a top public artist

Published July 22, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

"Public art is about communication," says Ned Smyth, one of the leading creators of public art in the United States. It also is "about making the piece relate to the building or space it's in."

Smyth is at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus through July 29 to complete a permanent installation in the lobbies of the Knight Oceanographic Research Center and the Department of Environmental Protection's Florida Marine Research Institute. The buildings, in the final stages of construction, are connected at the third floor by a walkway.

Smyth, born in 1948, lives in New York City. His major commissions are in Anchorage, Alaska, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, the Virgin Islands and New York.

His work at the USF and DEP buildings concerns the marine life that is basic to the missions of both. Each installation includes a wall mural and a sculpture.

The mural in the oceanographic center's lobby covers a wall 8 by 24 feet. Our Shadow depicts a rare black dragonfish outlined in gold leaf mosaic against a black background. Normally the fish is so deep in the water that it cannot be seen, but it can turn on an internal electrical system, similar to that of a lightning bug, in order to attract smaller fish. The fish is especially appropriate for the mural since it was recently captured on videotape during experiments conducted by USF's marine science program deep in the Pacific Ocean.

The sculpture included in this installation is three Sea Columns of keystone coral from the Keys. Embedded in the stone are shells and other remnants of sea life. A bench with the play-on-words title Sea-bed completes the installation.

Smyth has reversed the colors for a two-story mosaic in the DEP building. Building Blocks deals with the transformation of phytoplankton, zooplankton and other marine organisms at the base of the food chain. It is a black line-drawing on white pigment. The sculpture, of 140 blocks on the floor stacked about 2{ feet high, will realize "the physicalization of the idea of building blocks," says Smyth, as it carries the theme into another dimension.

Limestone, formed by the remains of ancient phytoplanktons, was used in the columns, and powdered lime, mixed with pigment and binder, was used in the painting. "To me it was interesting to use a material that was all part of the building block structure, that came from the same beginning hierarchy," he says.

The color reversal is in keeping with the subjects. The oceanographic center's art represents the shadow, the subconscious and the unknown, says Smyth. The DEP mural shows light, essential to the development of life.

The tone of the spaces was further dictated by a walkway above the dark mural that further gives a feeling of beneath the surface, and a staircase in front of the light mural that sets an ascending mood.

Smyth's art is one more major entry in the bay area's growing collection of public art, an art form produced for and owned by the public. Instead of being in museums, it is in places where people encounter it during daily activity. It is funded in part by taxes through local and state percent-for-art programs and the National Endowment for the Arts' Art in Public Places program, and in part by private and corporate donations.

USF's active public arts program, coordinated by Vincent Ahern, has several other projects recently completed or in planning stages, by Dale Eldred, Nancy Holt, Richard Fleishner, Doug Hollis and Mary Miss. George Sugarman's colossal sculpture stands outside NationsBank at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive in Tampa, and two murals by Richard Haas were unveiled at the 100 North Tampa building last December. The Tampa Museum of Art has commissioned Alan Sonfist for a major commission outside its facility, now under renovation. Although the names of these artists are not generally well known, they are among the most prominent creators of public art today.

The Smyth project is funded in part by the Art in State Buildings program, with significant additional funds from private sources. Dedication of the buildings is set for Oct. 28.