A stroll through Hilton Head Island’s magical open air art gallery.
Story by Carolyn Males + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott
Just past the gates of Honey Horn, a massive door looms into view. It sits there ajar in a blue frame jutting 17 feet up toward the clouds, its big copper-colored doorknob almost out of reach. Even stranger, this lone portal balances precariously on the ground as if a giant of Herculean strength had yanked at its corners, pulling it askew.
But the scale and the surreal distortion of sculptor Christopher Weed’s Portal tug at you until you sidle through that opening. Then, even though that door leads to nowhere––or so it seems––for an instant, the everyday world disappears and you’re somewhere else.
Welcome to the 2018 Public Art Exhibition—a fanciful journey through an artscape of 19 large-scale public art sculptures spread among the live oaks, gardens, and pathways of the Coastal Discovery Museum.
This biennial exhibition, Hilton Head’s fourth, is sponsored by The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, whose Public Art Fund will purchase and install one of these pieces in a public space on the island after the show closes the end of January.
Meanwhile, an additional work by Alicia Eggert and Mike Fleming greets visitors at the Hilton Head Airport with a message in neon. “You are on an island,” it proclaims. But then… in the next moment, the “on” flashes off, teasing with a new thought: “You are an island.” Indeed.
An Artful Journey
The nature of art in public spaces like those works on display here is that they draw you in, grabbing you by surprise, provoking a “what is it?” moment. So you walk around the piece and discover that what you see at first glance might turn out to be something else.
That tilted structure, the one with a wooden vessel atop it? From a distance it could be a spaceship. Up close it’s a canoe, but one that artist Charlie Brouwer has aimed at the stars. Or those rusted pillars with waving frond-like extensions. A clump of palm trees? Yes but now as you approach, it feels people-like, a glorious family tree with upraised limbs that local artist Kevin Eichner has fashioned out of reclaimed steel beams. And for sheer whimsy, there’s that odd-looking steel figure eight perched on two large black “stems.” Walk over to it. Oho! It’s Mark Larkin’s tongue-in-cheek Egretious with an intertwined pair of what else? Egrets. You laugh out loud.
The beauty of these outdoor artworks is that, unlike in a museum, you can stroll right up to them, touch them, in some cases make them spin, tilt, or rotate. Or you can sit on some, like Sarah Peters’s bronze organically shaped Botanical Fainting Couch. Go ahead and sprawl across its 96-inch expanse of alphabet letters, each representing a plant name (B for Begonia, etc.), and contemplate the nature all around you.
Close Encounters with the Unexpected
Portal by Christopher Weed
Colorado sculptor Christopher Weed takes everyday objects — paper clips, TV sets, chairs, puzzle pieces, Lego blocks — and abstracts them, pushing and pulling at their edges and contours so everything is distorted and atilt. Then he blows them up to Paul Bunyan-esque sizes. In the case of Portal, the massive door and frame at the beginning of the exhibition, he says “It’s all about changes in one’s life. When you open a door and enter, it’s almost like crossing a bridge. One door closes, another door opens, and just maybe what’s on the other side is better. And that goes on until the day we die.”
Beach Umbrella by Casey Schachner
What’s that over in the grass? A beach umbrella lying on its side? What, pray tell, does that have to do with art? Then it hits you. This is not like one you’d tote to Coligny. Nor is it made of nylon or canvas — materials that wear out, inevitably consigning it to garbage can heaven. Instead Casey Schachner has taken an iconic beach object and made it rock solid and permanent, alternating panels of creamy marble and colored granite on a steel frame. Schachner, who lives in Montana, studied stone carving in Italy and Vermont, but grew up in Hilton Head and Florida and often returns to her roots with carvings of coastal flora and fauna such as palms and sea fans.
A Peek Behind the Scenes
The selection process for the biennial Public Art Exhibition begins the year before when the Public Art Committee of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry puts out a call for entries. For this show, Rachel Reese, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, was brought in as a curatorial consultant to assist the committee in sorting and evaluating entries.
“We considered how each piece relates to this year’s theme, which is ‘envisioning connections,’” Reese explains. Along with evaluating artistic excellence, the committee asked questions like: “Does this work foster curiosity or discovery? Is it interactive in a new way? Does it say something about the region we live and work in?” They also looked for a balance of kinds of art pieces to ensure diversity and variety in the show. Other factors included logistics of installation and an artist’s willingness to do community outreach.
In the end, the artists selected for this year’s show came from 12 states and ranged in age from 21 to 74 years old. Which one of their pieces will join the island’s permanent public art collection on display around island? Stay tuned.
The Public Art Exhibition runs through Jan 31. Explore on your own or learn more on docent-led tours. Brand new this year: Otocast, an app featuring artists’ commentary that you can download and play as you walk through the exhibition. Free admission. For more information visit www.hhipublicart.org.