The 1992 Nicollet Mall commissions launched the public art careers of several local artists including Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken, Kinji Akagawa and sculptor Stanton Sears.
The Stone Boats benches were Sears’s first major commission. The project was much larger in scale and complexity than his previous work and was a stepping-stone to a career that has included the design, fabrication, and installation of over 70 large-scale public art projects. In collaboration with his partner, Andrea Myklebust, and architects, landscape architects and engineers, he has created major memorials and public gathering places throughout the United States.
Learning What it Takes to Create Public Art
Sears’s initial proposal, presented as part of the engineering firm BRW’s mall design in the late 1980s, included scale models for two 3’ x 4’ x 16’ sculptural benches. He also produced a full-size cardboard mockup of one of the benches and brought it down to the Mall in order to consider sight lines, how people moved through the space, critical distances, and how snow plows navigate the site.
The benches were Sears’s first experience with stone carving. He hired sculptor Philip Rickey who had formal training in carving. Rickey became the key person on a team that also included Nina Childs, a Macalester College student who went on to work with Sears for many years, and artist Peter Morales.
With his team lined up, the next step was fabricating shop models in wood at 3”= 1’- 0” for producing templates to enlarge to full-scale. Sears points out that, “making this type of work is different that just “blowing it up” in scale; there are continuous shifts in proportion and aesthetic changes as the work is translated to full-scale. This project involved hand-work, hand-carving. It is very different than producing a drawing or blueprint that is turned over to others to be enlarged through automated fabrication techniques.”
Sears began to learn the arduous process of stone carving. He recounts the steps involved first drilling and splitting the stone, then using diamond saws to make cuts, and chiseling the stone with a mallet. “Over time”, he says, “we had better aim and became stronger. The first bench took the team half-a-year to finish, and the second bench took less time.”
He chose a regional stone – iridian, which he thinks might not be a type of stone but rather a name given to it by the quarry – from Isle, MN. Sears originally wanted black stone for the Nicollet Mall project, but notes that it would cost more because it comes from deeper within the earth; it’s difficult to find a large piece without fractures; and the stone would have been more difficult to carve.
Stone Boats, constructed of a high quality material – stone – proved tougher than many other materials used in the 1992 streetscape design, and they have held up better. Sears points out that, “stone endures compared to concrete. Skateboarders can’t damage it – it is simple and more rugged.”
In a recent interview, reflecting upon the 1992 Nicollet Mall project, Sears observes that at that time, “I was more deliberately trying not to do “research projects” in order to generate concepts or imagery for artwork…. The design of the benches is partly inspired by a Winslow Homer painting of a sailboat on edge tacking into the wind; it is less overtly narrative, but it has a sensual form.”
The boat are pure – not literal, but evocative – sculptural forms whereas Sears’s later work often has imagery telling a recognizable story. Stone Boats mark the transition in an artist’s career between creating self-driven, art-world-referential, abstract work and choosing to create public art that tackles themes tied to specific projects and places, often with representational and figurative imagery and distinct narratives.
Sears Transitions to Public Art
Near the conclusion of the Nicollet Mall project in 1992, a team led by Sears won the competition to create the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Minnesota State Capitol Mall. His team was selected from a field of 218 submissions from 31 states.
Bruce N. Wright, writing about the memorial in Architecture Minnesota, remarked that Minnesota elements – trees, water, stone, a house form – sculpt the design making it unique among war memorials in the state, if not in the nation.
Sears’s recent local projects include floor designs at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and public art for three stops on the Green Line Light Rail Transit between downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Visit Mykebust + Sears Public Art to view their portfolio of recent work.