Sculpture Welcomes Travelers

May 1, 1999

Jessie Morgan

The first things visitors see when they arrive in a city can set the tone for their entire visit. For those arriving in New Orleans by train or bus, a new sculpture by Jeremy Jernegan, associate professor of art, provides a striking visual welcome to the Crescent City.

The sculpture, recently unveiled in front of Union Passenger Terminal at Loyola and Howard avenues, was selected in a juried competition and funded by Percent for Art, a program administered by the Arts Council of New Orleans. Fellow local artist Steve Kline collaborated with Jernegan on the piece.

Jernegan says the location is visually competitive, with a need for strong color and form to contend with the busy streets and surrounding buildings. To that end, the artists constructed a piece that stands 23 feet tall and is 30 feet in diameter.

The largest piece that either artist has yet built, it features colorful shapes that evoke images of navigation on the Mississippi River. Collaboration was key to this project.

"We both wanted to take advantage of each other's expertise," Jernegan says. Kline fabricated the steel elements of the piece, while Jernegan manufactured the sculptural tiles that form its base. As in an architectural project, all creative decisions were shared, Jernegan says. "We would hash the ideas out in lengthy trial-by-fire sessions," he says. "So the final result is an actual hybrid that neither of us would have come up with on our own."

The vertical forms are painted steel that rise above a 1,000-square-foot base of sculptural tile produced from 16,000 pounds of clay. The ridged tiles create an illusion of moving water, Jernegan says.

"The notion is that you're walking on water when you walk across this site," he says. "You have this sense that it's fluid and it's moving and there's a directionality to it." It was stability and permanence, however, that influenced the choice of clay as the medium for the piece. "I think clay is really an ideal material for outdoor application, because it will never corrode, it will never fade, it will never weather. It's nearly impervious," he says.

Jernegan incorporated the project into his course on ceramic moldmaking. He explains that the piece allows students to see different aspects of tile and it also provides a different perspective on scale.

"We tend to deal with ceramics in a table-top scale, or a hold-in-your-hand scale. This helps students to think about a scale that encompasses your field of vision, something that you can never see until the whole piece is finished," he says. The scale and visual elements of the piece were familiar to both artists.

"The forms that we used are very much part of my vocabulary of forms, drawn from imagery based on maritime navigation," says Jernegan, who suggests the images are an analogy to each individual's navigation through life. The piece also seems an apt metaphor for travel and for New Orleans, a city built around water. "There is a specific correlation between the watery environment and reference to this city, a city of travel, a city of navigation," Jernegan says.

The artists completed the sculpture on April 22. A dedication ceremony is planned for mid-May. "As it stands it will be one of the biggest pieces of public art in New Orleans, and it's certainly extremely prominent," Jernegan says. "That's exciting--to feel like you're making an enduring contribution to your city."

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