For Public Art, Taking the Crowds Into Consideration

Elizabeth Allison and her husband went for a picnic last month in Riverside Park South. She knows the 13-block-long greensward in the shadow of the West Side Highway south of 72nd Street well: She created a sculpture there — two figures on a bench facing the Hudson River.

In less time than it takes an ant to come out of nowhere and storm an egg salad sandwich, her husband’s expression changed.

“There was a guy sitting on my sculptures,” she said. “He proceeds to put his hands on the shoulders. This was to impress a young lady who was taking pictures. Press-ups on the shoulders! I mean, the engineer had warned me I was going to have drunk guys trying to do pyramids on top of my sculptures. I thought he was exaggerating.”

The engineer who issued the warning was one of the public-art experts she met through the Art Students League of New York’s Model to Monument program, which has become the centerpiece of a five-year partnership between the League and the Parks Department to create public art for city parks.

Creating public art “is not the same as doing studio art,” said Ms. Allison, 35, one of seven sculptors chosen for the inaugural year of Model to Monument. “One of the main points of the course is to teach the other things.”

The Model to Monument program is led by Greg Wyatt, the sculptor in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and creator of the Peace Fountain, a 1985 work on the cathedral grounds. He said the “other things” Ms. Allison mentioned included “planning, conceptualizing, modeling, fabricating and installing” — which can mean doing some ditch-digging for pieces large enough and heavy enough to require it.

The seven sculptors were recommended by faculty members at the League, “but they must complete in a serious way the application requirements,” Mr. Wyatt said. “In the first couple of weeks in the seminar, I bring them to St. John the Divine and I use my own career and example of the Peace Fountain as a place to introduce these ideas as theory but also as career practice.”

But Mr. Wyatt also teaches the ins and outs of meeting the city’s requirements for public art. The sculptors in the program “must make presentations, rehearsed and practiced in the seminar,” he said.

“We go to the Arsenal” — the Parks Department’s headquarters, facing Fifth Avenue — “and sit down in the commissioner’s office and make 10- to 15-minute presentations stating what their aspirations are for enlarging the scale, how the community will benefit, and overall a request for a permit,” he said. “That’s very exciting.”

The payoff, he said, is that “our first seven ‘graduates’ now understand the process of public art.” Each has a sculpture in Riverside Park South, and all seven collaborated on a 12-foot steel sculpture called “Mask” that was installed in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

Ms. Allison said the two figures in her piece in Riverside Park South “are using the setting as a place for reflection,” Ms. Alison said.

“Parks are very important for that in the city,” she said. “In a subway car, we fight to remain separate because other people are being pressed on us. That’s like how people talk about being lonely in a crowd in New York.” But in a park—even a somewhat noisy one like Riverside Park South, where the high-pitched whine of tires on surface of the West Side Highway is a constant— “it’s possible to be a little lonely.”

“They kind of read as females,” she said, “but I didn’t want people to think they’re a couple.”

As she walked toward the sculptures one afternoon last month, a man with Rollerblades and a woman with earbuds were sitting on the bench next to her two figures. The man and the woman appeared to be quarreling. A breakup?

They stood and walked away.

“It’s very strange watching people interact with the sculptures,” Ms. Allison said. “I feel a sense of ownership over them, I guess.”

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