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Art Populi: Take A Walking Tour Of USF's Public Art Collection

Nov 30, 2016

As part of WUSF's ongoing look at public art around the Tampa Bay area, we decided to examine a place where about 120 works are scattered over 1,700 acres.

It’s the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus, and we recently joined a Friday lunchtime walking tour that examined a handful of the pieces.

“There’s works that incorporate water, there’s works that incorporate interactivity, there’s works that are installed on the surfaces of buildings and in and around those spaces,” said tour guide Sarah Howard, the Curator for Public Art and Social Practice at the USF Institute for Research in Art.

Most of the works on the Tampa campus, along with a much smaller number on the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, were paid for by Florida’s Art in State Buildings Program. That’s a 1970s legislative effort that sets aside one-half of one percent of any new state construction funds for art that goes in or around a new building.

For USF, that comes out to about $1.5 million during the program's history, a sum that’s been augmented by private and in-kind donations.

Howard said the nature of the funding is the first reason the tour is open to the public. But more importantly is that it gives people, as well as curious students and faculty, the chance to see not just the art, but parts of campus they might not normally check out.

“Because a lot of this work is really hidden, there’s issues with landscaping or it’s in a facility that maybe it’s placed on the second floor in an area that the public doesn’t often visit," Howard said. "So it’s really a way to highlight the works that we have on campus and really give them a fuller exposure to the general public.”

"Forum I," one of Joe Testa-Secca's two mosaic tile murals that have adorned the John and Grace Allen Welcome Center since it was one of the original USF buildings constructed in 1960.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The first stop on the tour was the old Administration Building at the end of Leroy Collins Boulevard, the main road into campus.

There, a pair of mosaic tile murals, "Forum I" and "Forum II," designed by Tampa native Joe Testa-Secca, adorn the front walls of what’s now the John and Grace Allen Welcome Center. Howard said the murals were installed when the building was built in 1960. While they’re now somewhat obstructed by bushes and other foliage, they’ve held up remarkably well.

“As far as maintenance goes, they’re a really great material to have incorporated into the Florida environment, especially an exterior application,” she said.

A short walk from the mosaics is another piece of art located on the side of a building – in this case, the Natural and Environmental Science Building. But instead of a mural on the first story, it’s an elevated piece, mounted to the wall and extending four stories into the sky.

"Tampa Wind," created by Stacy Levy, covers a portion of the side of the four story Natural and Environmental Sciences Building.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Tampa Wind,” the creation of artist Stacy Levy, is made up of 3,000 steel discs of various sizes that shimmer in the sun and silently vibrate with the wind – all to make a viewer think of a specific body of water.

"It's a rendering of a section of the Hillsborough River that passes through the eastern edge of the USF campus," Howard said.

“It’s a great way to see a piece that incorporates something local and then incorporates the concept of the buildings and then the environment, fantastic,” Kristina Skeptin said. She was on the tour with a group of fellow art aficionados from Sarasota.

“All of us loved (USF) from the moment we came in on the entrance off of Fowler – it’s a lovely campus and the fact that there is a public art collection was very encouraging.”

We checked out a number of other pieces inside the Engineering and Sciences part of campus, including “Unspecific Gravity.” The one acre site includes a reflecting pool with a number of long poles ending with chrome-copper tops that resemble Mickey Mouse’s head and ears.

"Unspecific Gravity," Doug Hollis' creation, covers one acre of space in USF's Engineering and Science area on campus.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

But that’s not what artist Doug Hollis was going for – the tops are actually fountains designed to represent a water molecule: one oxygen atom, two hydrogen atoms.

The fountains don't actually function anymore. At first, they produced a fine mist, but the calcium level in Florida's water clogged up the fountains early on, and they've never been fixed. Now, the molecules stand there, silently reflecting the scene around them as jets quietly move the water in the reflecting pool below.

Laura Meckling is a first year Master of Fine Arts Student at USF. The mixed media artist has seen many of the pieces while walking the campus on her own. The tour, she said, gives the stories behind the art that isn't necessarily found on a plaque.

“I think it adds value for the general public to be able to see artwork," Meckling said. "I wish some of the public sculptures had a little more in-depth summary about what was going on with the sculpture.”

Ten minutes and one more stop later, we headed inside for the last piece on the tour – located at WUSF Public Media.

USF art students "paint" on "The Wall," Siebren Versteeg's interactive art piece located in WUSF Public Media's building.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

On the second floor landing between the TV and Radio buildings is Siebren Versteeg’s “The Wall.” It's a pair of 46-inch touch screen LCD displays where anyone can basically create digital graffiti using their fingers.

“And then you can paint with whatever color you want and then you can also send the image to you or anyone else that you would like to send it to,” Howard said as a trio of USF art students drew and talked.

When it comes to a personal favorite piece of public art on campus, Howard and I agree - it's a creation called "Solar Rotary," located between Cooper Hall and the Communication and Information Sciences Building.

Artist Nancy Holt designed the work, which places a large aluminum structure that looks like a twisted swing set on a walkway inside concrete benches, with a smaller concrete circle in the center.

Thanks to hundreds of hours of trigonometry equations performed by Professor Emeritus Jack Robinson and his students, at precise times throughout the year, five plaques commemorating certain events from Florida and Tampa history are framed in a perfect circle of sunlight.

A meteorite segment believed to be 4.5 billion years old sits in the middle of Nancy Holt's "Solar Rotary." At solar noon on the summer solstice, the circle will be perfectly framed in sunlight by the aluminum sculpture inside the plaza.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Then, at solar noon on the summer solstice (1:31 p.m.), a piece of a meteorite believed to be 4.5 billion years old embedded in the center concrete circle is perfectly surrounded by sunlight.

"It’s a real treasure to have as part of the collection and it’s a real wonderful piece to go visit on a sunny day or even just to sort of hang out in the space and kind of enjoy the being outdoors," Howard said. "And I think that’s one of the really nice things about our collection here is that we do have a lot of outdoor works and that we can enjoy them so much of the year.”

She adds that the public tour is a reminder that instead of simply walking past a piece of art, people should stop for a moment and take a look.

“We all need to kind of be more present about our surroundings and maybe to look at things in new ways, it might give us a sort of a new way to approach the campus, to approach art, a new entry point and access point,” Howard said.

Howard currently conducts tours once a semester, with the next one scheduled for March 24, 2017. You can view a larger slideshow of the collection and vote on your favorite work by clicking here, and see a map with the location of a number of the pieces by clicking here.