For all its natural beauty and million-dollar views, the new St. Pete Pier will have another aesthetic element in the form of public art.
After years of planning, committee meetings and controversy, four distinct pieces have been installed throughout the pier.
The most high-profile piece is Janet Echelman’s Bending Arc, an aerial net sculpture that is now suspended above a family park on the pier’s approach.
When the idea to commission the Boston-based, Tampa-born, world-renowned artist was proposed in 2017, many wondered why a local artist wasn’t being considered. Laura Bryant, who was pier public art committee chairwoman and suggested Echelman for the new pier, posited that working with the artist whose sculptures are on display around the world would elevate the city’s status.
Echelman integrates architecture, urban design and structural and aeronautical engineering into her work.
The committee paid $75,000 to secure Echelman so she could conduct a feasibility study before constructing the piece, a decision that created debate among committee members.
Mayor Rick Kriseman made it a personal mission to bring the sculpture to the city. He raised $1.25 million in private money to pay for the sculpture and another $400,000 to help cover costs for the infrastructure, including the foundation, lighting and four pylons.
The city also allocated $1.3 million in tax increment financing funds for the design and construction of the infrastructure. The Public Art Commission also committed $250,000 to the project.
“The first time I saw her work she was receiving an award, and I thought, ‘We have to get that in St. Pete,‘ ” said Kriseman during a tour of the St. Pete Pier on June 25. “It would be perfect out at the pier, because the way her designs are, they come alive with the air. And being on the water, it’s always going to have an energy to it.”
It was originally proposed that the sculpture would be located at Spa Beach. Environmentalists, including representatives from the Clearwater Audubon Society, had concerns that local birds would get caught in the netting. But Echelman consulted with several experts during her 2017 feasibility study and took advised measures to ensure that wouldn’t happen.
“The art installation’s movement, color, wide net mesh openings, and thick guide lines should suffice in reducing the risk of bird entanglements,” Katheryn Harris and Morgan Parks of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote in the report.
It was decided that the sculpture would instead be installed over the site of a family park. Installation began in the beginning of January, but the artist decided to make netting hand adjustments on the ground instead of in the air, so the net was removed later in the month and returned to its fabricator in Washington state. The net was reattached on June 11.
Bending Arc billows with the breeze. In the daytime, the sculpture’s gradient shades of blue blend with the sky, giving the effect of gazing at clouds. The grassy park filled with plants was built with just that in mind, with berms in the ground on which to lounge. At night, it’s a whole different experience when LED colored lights in a palette of magentas and violets transform the sculpture’s physical color.
It’s attached to poles that resemble sail masts, done intentionally to blend in with the nearby marina. It can be seen from almost anywhere at the pier. A nearby observation bridge provides a good platform to capture a photo of the sculpture.
In her artist’s statement, Echelman says that the sculpture “embraces change.” She says that she was inspired by the site’s “multi-layered cultural and natural history.” For the design, she studied old postcards of the pier and Spa Beach and created patterns inspired by beach umbrellas and barnacles.
She also researched the site’s “social and political history with respect to both who was given and who was denied access to its natural beauty and recreational pleasures.” The title is taken from a phrase by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The other three pieces that were chosen by the Pier Public Art Selection Committee come with less scrutiny than Bending Arc. But some residents voiced disapproval that the artists who created them are also not local.
“We decided early on that while we were more than happy to consider and look at the work of local artists, many of whom are friends of all of us, many of whose work we admire, we were not going to give any preference to local artists,” said Laura Bryant.
Bryant said that in the early stages, local names were brought up as potential artists for the project. But two architects on the committee pointed out, as did Bryant, that artists wouldn’t apply for a project that stated up front that it would give preference to local artists. They felt that would inhibit the entries.
The committee hired Ann Wykell to put together a list of artists they would invite to submit works, and they also did an open call. They received 300 applications, which Wykell went through, researching each artist’s past experience to ensure they were capable of completing the work.
Local artists did apply, and Bryant said that some of them got quite far in the jurying process.
But in the end, it came down to three: California-based Nathan Mabry, New York-based Xenobia Bailey and Nick Ervinck of Belgium, who shared $488,000 in public art funds from the Public Arts Commission.
“We really were judging on the work alone,” Bryant said.
Myth, Mabry’s monumental metal red origami pelican sculpture, greets visitors near the pier’s entrance. Two realistic, red statues of pelicans, which Mabry creates in a multistage process that begins with 3D scanning of taxidermy birds, are perched on top of the sculpture, and a few others sit several feet away. Mabry was trained in ceramics and explores the history of making objects while exploring new techniques.
“I’ve always been fascinated by anthropology and archaeology — ritualistic associations within objects both old and new — everything they represent about human culture and human endeavor, and how this affects past, present and future,” he said.
Mandalas swirl over a cheerful yellow background in Bailey’s Morning Stars glass mosaic, affixed to a concrete structure. The piece peeks out on the path to and from the Pier Head and has all the makings of a selfie wall. Bailey is a crochet artist who became known for her African-inspired hats that were worn on The Cosby Show, in a Spike Lee movie and in United Colors of Benetton ads. For Morning Stars, she crocheted the mandalas, took photographs of them, pixelated the photos and worked with fabricators to have one of them rendered in glass tiles and assembled into a mosaic.
Bailey has committed her work to create an African American aesthetic and lifestyle she calls Funk.
Her artist’s statement says that “she researches, honors and continues the history of African Americans using imagination to create something out of nothing to express identity and survive.”
Ervinck’s Olnetopia sculpture at the Pier Head looks like a big water droplet. Of the three artists, he was the only one who wasn’t invited to apply; he sent in his work via the open call. He has shown his sculptures, which play with negative space, around the world. They’re usually rendered in bright yellow polycarbonate, but the committee knew that would create the need for constant upkeep. So instead, Ervinck created the sculpture in bronze with a patina that will deepen over time.
“The finding that a ‘hole’ in matter is such a young idea will probably haunt him for the rest of his life,” his online bio states.
St. Petersburg artists do have some representation at the St. Pete Pier. Vendor stalls in the Marketplace area are adorned with details of murals from around the city that lists the artists’ names and the location of the mural. Artists include the Vitale Bros., Palehorse, Jennifer Kosharek, Cecilia Lueza and Zulu Painter. Those will be updated with different murals as time goes on.